Matthew Carney Free Meal Program

Matthew Carney, Sandwich’s school food services director, stands next to a table containing some of the free bag lunches being prepared in the high school’s kitchen.

The school district’s food service company, The Abbey Group, says that not enough people are taking advantage of the free meals it offers. Because of this, the company said, its business is suffering.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture announced that all schools would be able to provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to students through June 2021. The meals are offered to any child under age 18, regardless of whether they are at school in person, schooled remotely, homeschooled, or enrolled in another district.

Sandwich’s Food Services director Matthew Carney explained that The Abbey Group is reimbursed about $3 by the US Department of Agriculture for each free breakfast or lunch it provides.

But only about 500 of Sandwich’s 2,500 students are taking advantage of the free lunch and less than 100 are taking a free breakfast. That means the company is not receiving much of a reimbursement from the USDA.

Compared to last year’s overall meal sales, this is a sharp decline, Mr. Carney said.

Making matters worse, sales of extra à la carte items such as chips, snacks, and bottled drinks are way down, Mr. Carney said.

Even using some free food items provided by the government to prepare the meals, Mr. Carney said that the company’s bottom line is suffering. So much so, he told the school committee this week, that The Abbey Group might have to end its contract with the town.

Currently, students attending in-person classes are able to pick up a free pre-bagged breakfast in the schools each morning. For lunch, students have a choice of either a hot meal or a deli sandwich.

Grab-and-go meals are made available Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 1 PM at the high school for students not in the classroom. Each day, families can swing by and get bags of food containing a complete breakfast and a complete lunch. People can come and pick up food for whoever needs it, no questions asked, Mr. Carney has said.

Mr. Carney said that if someone came through to pick up 20 bags of food for children in an entire neighborhood, that is permitted. It is also an option to pick up meals for multiple days, if need be.

“I would love to have every student in the district get a free lunch,” Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Carney said he has heard people voice a hesitation in taking the free food since they are worried that they are taking a needed meal away from someone who cannot afford it. This is not the case, he said, adding that there are plenty of meals to go around.

“There are no limits to who we can feed,” he said. “You just have to be under 18.”

Despite the deficit of students taking meals, Mr. Carney said, that food is not going to waste. He said the company is managing this by not sourcing as much fresh and local food as it was able to last year, as well as through having fewer offerings each day.

He said The Abbey Group also being a little less creative with its menu.

“It’s easier to sell a kid on a cheeseburger than on lobster mac and cheese,” he said.

The company was lauded by the district and families last year for its innovative approach to the school lunch menu with fare such as lobster macaroni and cheese served at all grade levels and its focus on fresh, local dairy and produce. The company was also focused on reducing waste by bringing reusable lunch trays to the district.

Sandwich School Committee chairman Donald DiGiacomo said the meals offered by the company are “next level” and added that the company is very much an appreciated district partner.

If more students do not start taking the free meals, Mr. Carney said, the company may have to consider ending the partnership with the district.

“We’re definitely facing a crisis,” he said. “Participation is the only way we’re going to get through it.”

The daily menu is accessible through the company’s website, sandwichfood.abbeygroup.info/Menus.aspx, or through a mobile app that is available for download through the website, as well.

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