SNHU’s LeBlanc leads effort to keep school kids fed in Manchester starting this weekend

Weekend meals for kids should be sustainable for four to five weeks.

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SNHU President and CEO Paul LeBlanc has led the effort to keep Manchester schoolchildren fed on weekends. File Photo

MANCHESTER, NH — On Saturday, 5,000 meal packs, each containing two lunches,  will be distributed to schoolchildren at five locations in the city, thanks to Southern New Hampshire University.

Steve Thiel, Assistant Vice President of Social Impact and Community Relations, SNHU, said the idea of distributing meals to schoolchildren on weekends began with a conversation between Mayor Joyce Craig and SNHU President Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc.

It came about the time Manchester closed down the schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The district implemented a plan to have school bus drivers continue their routes but instead of picking up schoolchildren they would drop off meals and academic materials.

That conversation, Thiel said, quickly turned to the need to provide meals for the children on the weekend since, for many of them, breakfast and lunch they had each day in school were their most consistent meals.

The district has been doing a terrific job, Thiel said, but there still was the gap of the weekends where some students did not have access to food due to their families’ economic hardships and other reasons.

“That sort of inspired Paul and a few of us to raise some funding and make available our food and dining services resources through our partner Sodexo who, under normal circumstances, would be cooking for our campus students at full volume but with our campus teaching the rest of the semester online it left a number of resources available for Manchester schoolchildren,” he said.

“One of the first calls I got was from Paul LeBlanc and his team offering to provide meals to students.  We connected him to our team on the district side and they’re working collaboratively to provide meals for students on weekends,” Mayor Joyce Craig said.

“SNHU reached out early and asked how they could help,” said Jennifer Gillis, Assistant Superintendent, School Operations, for Manchester School District in a news release. “We felt that we had a good handle on our weekday deliveries, so food for the weekends was our biggest need.”  She said she expects it to continue for the next several weeks.

The program is a perfect match for SNHU and the school district.

“We have a fully-licensed kitchen and food preparation operation and the school district had the buses so it really was an effective partnership program and everyone had to mobilize resources that were well within hand,” Thiel said.

Beginning this Saturday at five sites in the city, volunteers from the MTA, school district, Sodexo and SNHU, will hand out the grab bags, keeping social distancing in mind.

The packs will contain two complete meals. Thiel said they will have things like a sandwich, a fruit cup or a pasta salad, milk and a pre-packaged cookie.

“Sort of a traditional grab bag lunch,” he said.

He said $120,000 was raised for the program, a combination of university funds and donations from members of SNHU’s board of trustees.  He said while the school closure is until April 3, many believe it will be extended.

The $120,000  is probably enough to cover four or five weeks.

However, he said should the closure be extended any longer than that, more funding will be needed.   SNHU has set up a fundraising page where people if they feel it is a worthy program, can make a donation.

If you’d like to make a contribution to this effort, you can do so at https://alumni.snhu.edu/make-a-gift/meals-for-manchester.

Thiel said there will be challenges in maintaining the program.  One is that as the virus spreads, people taking part in the program may become unavailable as they take care of their health or their family’s health.

“So I think staffing and volunteerism that makes this program go will be a constantly shifting source,” he said.   Thiel said he recognizes that selecting five sites across the city also may be challenging for some people to access.

He said the program could probably work in other cities.  He said he knows Concord distributes meals but other districts have families pick up the food at the schools.  Those programs, he said, are operated with government funding.

Packages will be ready for pickup starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 28. The sites are:

  • JFK Arena, 303 Beech St.
  • Crystal Lake Park, 679 Bodwell Road
  • Parkside Middle School, 75 Parkside St.
  • Smyth Road School, 245 Bruce Road
  • Memorial High School, 1 Crusader Way

Families are asked to pick the site closest to their home. Volunteers from Manchester School District will be handing out bags from the front and the back of each MTA bus. Families are reminded to practice social distancing –  stand at least 6 feet apart.

“We’re fortunate to have so many in the city ready to step in at a moment’s notice to help the school district,” said Gillis, who serves as the district’s emergency response coordinator. “SNHU came forward to help, and we worked with the city Health Department, fire, police and Manchester Transit Authority to make this happen. Everyone is pitching in to make sure our children are taken care of.”

Craig thanked both LeBlanc and SNHU for their generosity.

“Over the last few weeks, they have stepped forward and committed to helping residents and students. I can’t thank SNHU enough. We’re lucky to have them in our community,” she said.

She said when the city asked the public for needed materials such as sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizers, SNHU donated 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizers.

“We were psyched to do it,” Thiel said.  He said because only essential personnel are on campus while other employees remotely work, they had an oversupply.

Craig said SNHU also let the city its field house serve as the city’s alternate care site with 250 beds.

“They’ve been generous and responsible to the needs of our city in this hard time, and we’re grateful to have them as partners,” she said.

Manchester School District families should direct any questions about food pickup to covid19@mansd.org.