Parents who stopped by the drive-up stands in front of area schools designated as food distribution sites last week said they were grateful for the chance to grab a sack meal.

Traffic was a little thin on March 15, the first day of a region-wide free meals program superintendents created as schools shut down for what looks to be at least a month amid precautions to slow the coronavirus spread.

Samantha Burnett, the mother of a first-grade student at Manitou Springs Elementary, said she was worried when she heard schools would close a week before spring break and switch to remote learning.

Her daughter receives free and reduce meals at school, and Burnett had not budgeted for extra meals this week.

“It was a concern,” she said while being given breakfast and lunch sacks at Manitou Springs High School. “I think this is awesome, that they’re willing to do this.”

Superintendents from El Paso County’s 15 public school districts set aside the usual competition for enrollment, athletics and academics to set up a network and online map of food distribution locations, which can be found at

The goal is to ensure families still have food during the unforeseen hiatus.

“They’ve really been one voice; it’s been amazing,” said Suzi Thompson, chief financial officer for Manitou Springs School District 14.

More than 20 locations are giving away meals over the lunch hour, with times varying by site. Families can pick up free bags of groceries for household use at some schools.

Schools will offer the meals for at least one week, others are planning for two weeks or possibly more, depending on how long schools remain closed.

“Though education is paramount, right now we need to ensure that we address any food insecurities for our students,” said Wendy Birhanzel, superintendent at Harrison School District 2, where about three-fourths of students qualify for the federal subsidies for school meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided an emergency waiver for schools to offer meals for students, in the same way they do during summer months, she said.

“This waiver allows us to feed any child in the community up the age of 18; they do not have to be a current district student,” Birhanzel said. “All Pikes Peak area school districts are working together to ensure that regardless of where a student lives, he or she has access to food.”

School District 49, the region’s third-largest, and Widefield School District 3 in Security-Widefield are consolidating staff and supplies and will “update the regional map with new D-3 and D-49 sites as they become active,” said Superintendent Peter Hilts, who pitched the idea for the online map pinpointing local food sites.

Coronado High School in Colorado Springs School District 11 distributed sack lunches at a slow but steady clip March 15.

“We’ve gotten honked at and had thumbs ups,” lead kitchen specialist Nicole Stewart said.

Anyone with children in the car received free meals.

“We’ve gotten a lot of compliments, with everything gone in the stores,” Coronado kitchen manager Katie Berry said. “Some parents have said they don’t know what they’d do without this — it will help them get by.”

Lori Tottleben drove up to get a lunch for her son, a freshman, who has been looking forward to playing high school baseball for years. Like other athletics programs, that’s now on hold.

“We’re not in dire straits food-wise, but I really appreciate it,” she said. “It’s really nice they’re doing all this.”

Tottleben sees the coronavirus as a defining moment for today’s teenagers.

“This is going to impact them years down the road,” she said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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