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NEWS: Reimbursement from state provides all BHS students with free bagged lunches

By Natalie Zagorski

Quest Food Services changed the way they distribute their meals in order to provide meals for BHS students during the pandemic. Quest provides Batavia school district as well as 75 other school districts with locally grown and produced food that comes from a 250-mile span radius of the district that it provides for. This service allows for all Batavia students to access free lunches paid for by BHS through reimbursement from the state’s extension of the Summer Food Service Program. The Summer Food Service Program previously only provided food for students in low-income areas who qualified for state-administered assistance, but due to the Covid pandemic, this has been extended to all students in the BPS district. There are stricter guidelines for making and handling the food due to new CDC rules that ensure students are getting safe food during the pandemic.

“We follow all CDC social distancing, hand sanitizing, mask-wearing, and shields (guidelines),” said Jeremy Wilkerson director of Quest Food Services.

Although sanitation was already a top priority for Quest, this year it has been even more crucial due to new CDC guidelines. The school lunches for students this year are in individual paper bags and all of the food inside of them is in its own sealed package to ensure that it is clean and safe. Wilkerson said that before the pandemic, food was able to be dished up and that people could eat it on-site, but now everything has to be sealed up and packaged individually. 

Mr. Wilkerson said that “usually we use a 4-week differing cycle.”

The variety in food that students are provided with over a month contributes to a more balanced diet that suits their needs. Although Quest is not required to provide this much diversity in their meals, they choose to for the well being of their recipients. 

The amount of students that rely on provided meals in Quest’s 75 food districts has gone up. Schools have a 35 percent participation rate for students getting these free provided lunches compared to a 28-30 percent participation rate in previous years. Because of Covid, Many families who once thought that buying food would never be a concern, now find themselves out of work with the same expenses to pay. These families now rely on meals from places like Quest that can give their students free lunches for the whole week, paid for by the state and distributed from their schools. This allows for families who are struggling with expenses to be able to cut down on their expenses for food. 

Although more students are relying on these school lunches, the CDC guidelines have reduced requirements for the number of workers. This is convenient for providers like Quest because some employees are not comfortable with working during the pandemic and this way they don’t have to. 

Quest takes care of its employees as well as its recipients. Quest provides balanced lunches with a variety of foods that meet the dietary needs of its recipients. The Illinois State Board of Education requires that school lunches contain three food groups but Quest provides five. This ensures that students are getting all the nutrients that they need to stay healthy. Wilkerson said that his own children enjoy it when he brings home bags of food because they like the food that’s inside. 

Quest has adopted a new way of providing these lunches in more of a Covid safe fashion. The form of picking up lunches is more flexible this year with more options for families who may not be able to visit a site to pick up their lunches every day. Students have options when to get their lunches depending on the style of learning that they chose. Students who are in a hybrid style of learning are able to pick up two days worth of lunches and a weekend’s worth on Fridays when they are at school. Those students who have chosen to be all remote this year are able to do a curbside pickup for their lunches or visit the site daily and pick up their lunches. 

Extra lunches and food area not thrown away with Quest. This extra food is donated to local organizations such as the Batavia Food Pantry and Hessit House. Wilkerson said that Quest gets a list of how many people are going to be in school for each day and makes that many bagged lunches. If someone doesn’t grab their lunch then there will be extras and these will be donated. 

When it comes to distributing the bagged lunches Wilkerson said, “(to dispensers of the lunch bags) Don’t force it, just be available.” 

At first, Quest was trying to strongly enforce that every student brings home a bagged lunch but then they decided that it was more up to the family and student if they wanted to grab one. Some students fear a stigma that grabbing a bagged lunch will make it look like their family can’t afford food when in reality it’s a tough time for the whole country and many people are unemployed. 

Quest is meeting the dietary needs of students who have always relied on state-funded programs for meals as well as for students whose families can use a little more help during this difficult time. Quest is a nationwide program that has multiple locations. It provides lunches for kindergarten-12th grade Batavia school district, some neighboring food districts, colleges, and business dining sites. School districts also have the choice of what grades they want Quest to provide for, they can provide lunches for one school like just an elementary school or the whole district like Batavia has. 

Quest is one of the few businesses that has seen a growth rate this year. This year Quest has grown by 15 percent due to the pandemic and their ability to switch the way that lunches are made in order to still provide for students in need. Keeping students healthy is a priority at BHS and Quest provides these students the food to do so.

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