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Lunchroom workers hand out three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., Thursday morning. All Illinois schools, including Chicago Public Schools, are closed for weeks amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lunchroom workers hand out three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., Thursday morning. All Illinois schools, including Chicago Public Schools, are closed for weeks amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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CPS hands out over 500K meals in 3 days of coronavirus closures: ‘This is something great Chicago’s doing for us’

CPS workers are giving away sacks of food outside every school in the city — a new normal for the next several weeks.

Through her bedroom window that overlooks Nixon Elementary on the Northwest Side, Maria Flores watches lunchroom workers as they hustle out of the school kitchen and onto the sidewalk to hand out meals in big black garbage bags — and then back inside to grab more.

The scene has played out daily since Tuesday, when all 600-plus Chicago Public Schools closed due to fears over the coronavirus. It represents a drastic change in the district’s school lunch program — and a new normal at Nixon and around the city — at least for the next several weeks.

So far, CPS has handed out almost 90,000 meal packages, which each include three days’ worth of breakfast and lunch, for a total of more than a half-million meals.

Flores — a housemaid who was told by her clients not to come to work because of coronavirus worries — and her husband — an electrician whose work has also scaled down — are watching their two grandsons as Flores’ daughter and son-in-law continue working restaurant jobs handling take-out and delivery orders.

“This is a big help for us,” Flores said.

‘It feels totally different now’

Edith Quinones, a 20-year CPS veteran and the lunchroom manager at Nixon, was one of three women standing outside the Hermosa neighborhood school Thursday morning, handing out food to families.

At Nixon alone, Quinones said it was an overwhelming first couple days as her crew gave out more than 2,100 meals.

“It feels totally different now,” Quinones said. “Given everything that’s going on, and people are coming, it feels like more of a necessity now.”

To keep the area clean, they’ve taken turns heading inside to wash their hands, and all the workers in the kitchen have been sanitizing food trays with soap and water.

Still, Flores is worried about germs. Taking no risks, she tells her grandsons, ages 7 and 12, to disinfect every package of food before they dig in.

Edith Quinones, the lunchroom manager, packs a bag of three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., March 19, 2020.
Edith Quinones, the lunchroom manager, packs a bag of three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for students at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., Thursday morning.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Dulce Herrera has a 4-year-old daughter she’s planning to send to Nixon next fall. For now, making sure she has food to eat is a priority — and she’s grateful she has a way to get it even though her daughter isn’t in school yet.

“It’s very good of CPS to do this and give people this opportunity,” Herrera said. “I hope a lot of people are taking advantage of it.”

Ana Gonzalez, a grandmother of three, was scheduled to undergo spinal corrective surgery this week, but it was canceled by her hospital because of an expected surge of COVID-19 patients. Instead, she’s at home caring for her grandsons while their dad goes to work as a landscaper.

“This is an amazing help,” Gonzalez said of the meals. “This is something great Chicago’s doing for us.”

Estella Damien, 45, and her two children, 11-year-old Anthony Ora and 7-year-old Janelli Roa, receive three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for each student at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., Thursday morning, March 19, 2020. All Illinois schools, including Chicago Public Schools, are closed for weeks amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
Estella Damien, 45, and her two children, 11-year-old Anthony Ora and 7-year-old Janelli Roa, receive three days of free breakfast and lunch meals for each student at William P. Nixon Elementary School, 2121 N. Keeler Ave., Thursday morning, March 19, 2020. All Illinois schools, including Chicago Public Schools, are closed for weeks amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

‘I’m so sorry I can’t hug you’

At Brunson Elementary in Austin, Chlease Amadji picked up a big brown bag for each of her five kids and hopped back onto a CTA bus home. It was her second trip this week. She used the fresh vegetables in the first set of meals to make smoothies for her kids, who range in age from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“It means that my children will have more than enough just in case they do shut everything down,” Amadji said. “Not knowing when it’s going to end, it can become quite stressful. But to know they can sit and eat well, that’s a good thing. And it takes stress off the parents.”

Greeting Amadji at the door was Brenda Grisby, the lunchroom manager at Brunson.

Grisby said it’s taking time to get used to the changes. She’s worked in the school cafeteria for 30 years. Thursday was her colleague Willie Smith’s 24-year work anniversary.

“We miss the kids. I told them when they were coming up, I said, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t hug you.’ Because a lot of them, they need hugs,” Grisby said. “They come to the lunchroom before they go to the teachers. I miss that. I miss it.”

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