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Making Meals more Meaningful


A week ago, the traffic along Creston road would be indomitable, but instead, the wonted clamor of cars rushing to work or school was replaced by the calm hum of engines with time to spare.

But, at Winifred Pifer Elementary School, the parking lot was filled with cars despite the school not being in session. The gates that elementary schoolers once ran through with their colorful backpacks bouncing behind them, instead held 400 meals that any kid could enjoy.

Tuesday, March 17, marked the first day of the Paso Robles School District’s Meaningful Meals initiative. Pifer Elementary was one of four sites giving out meals at 11:00 A.M. 

On that Tuesday morning, three other schools were selected to distribute meals: Flamson Middle School, Georgia Brown Elementary, and Paso Robles High School. The basis of the program was that from the times of 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. all children 18 and under would be able to go to one of the four pick-up locations. There they would be provided both lunch for that day and breakfast for the next day free of charge.

Families are finding more and more empty shelves in their local shopping markets as coronavirus becomes more prevalent in their communities and panic buying escalates. According to Joseph Vaughn over 50% of students in the PRJUSD use free and reduced foods, and Meaningful Meals is meant to ensure that a hot, nutritious meal is available for all kids, even as groceries are becoming more difficult to find and school is out. 

Each day the food services team produces around 1300 servings for the sites.  At the schools they gave out both lunch for the present day and an easily microwavable breakfast for the next. So if a parent came in with two children under 18, no matter if they were from Templeton or New York City, they would receive two lunches and two breakfasts.  If one meal was the breakfast and lunch duo, then Flamson received 150 meals, Pifer received 200 meals, PRHS l got 150 meals, and Georgia Brown had 150 meals as well.

All lunch bags were all taken by 1 p.m. Wednesday at every site.

Joesph Vaughn, the Director of Food Service and head of Meaningful Meals for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, shared his predictions and statistics for the program based on the past few days. “Well, if yesterday was any indication, it was our very first day and we averaged over 100 meals per site. So I think it’s going to do very well, quite frankly I expect it to grow,” he said. “And I think it’ll continue to grow, particularly, as parents see the quality of the meals that we’re putting out.”


On their first day, they were able to give out around 420 meals, on Wednesday, March 18, the school sites provided 608 meals, (which is 1216 servings), and on Thursday, March 19, the number of meals was raised to 800 (1600 lunches and breakfasts). As of now, the plan is to continue producing and distributing meals Mondays through Fridays, from the dates of March 17 to April 10, when the break from school comes to a close. However, if the quarantine was to remain in place past that time, Vaughn stressed that as long as families keep coming, federal funding allows them to keep up the Meaningful Meals program as long as the community is in need of it.

“We know that there’s a lot of students here as well as across the country that the only opportunity they have to get hot, nutritious meals at school,” said Joseph Vaughn. “And so we just want to make sure that kids do have access to food.”

Vaughn oversees the entire process of Meaningful Meals. He chooses the daily menus (on Wednesday it was mac and cheese with a vegetable and fruit side), oversees food production, places volunteers, helps organize the pickup areas, and the distribution.

Vaughn has been a Food Service Director for 22 years, but only started in PRJUSD in early December 2019. He was nationally recognized for his previous efforts in Los Angeles Unified School District where he served over 640,000 students.

 “There’s a program called the Seamless Summer Food Service Program… that I’ve done for many years. Not in these circumstances, obviously, but serving meals during the summer, or after school supper meals,” Vaughn said. “We knew there was a need in the community.”

Meaningful Meals is a program run by food service employees who are volunteering to work during this time of crisis.  Additionally there are numerous PRJUSD volunteers like, Meg Guffey and Maggie Tatman, principals of Winifred Pifer and Virginia Peterson respectively.  They held large signs reading “Free meals for students” and “Comidas Gratis para Estudiantes”, indicating to the passing cars that a hot meal for their children was just one turn away. 


Tatman commented on staying positive and how even in a community-wide isolation, no one is truly alone.  

“We’re trying to make sure that we sustain our connections with our families and standing out here holding a sign about free meals is one way for me to do that,” Tatman said. “Our message is that we are still here and we support your family. We support your kiddos and we will continue to be there as a school, community, and as a school district, even in difficult times.”

Joseph Vaughn praised the teamwork and dedication of the volunteers as he checked up on each site Wednesday morning. As he made his rounds around town to each pick-up site, he saw people coming together for the benefit of kids. From custodians to teachers, principals, paraeducators, administrators, and so many other volunteers, they were all there not because they had to but because they could.

“To see the people from education and different departments pitching in and coming together as a team was very touching,” Vaughn said. “Seeing these educators willing to put their health at risk for the benefit of the students in the community was amazing in this time of self-isolation.”

As she proudly held her poster on Wednesday’s sunny afternoon, Maggie Tatman wished to send a message to all the students and families in the community. “I miss my kids. I miss the normalcy. I know that everyone does right now.” she said with a smile on her face and knowing in her eyes. “It feels very surreal and things are confusing, but if they need anything, just know that we are still here.”

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