Until Friday, Feb. 5, the Cloquet School District food program will use three buses stationed throughout the area to distribute free meals to children 18 and under in the community.

The effort stems from the low supply of buses available to deliver food to families in the district because of students returning to classrooms. The effort started Tuesday, Jan. 26, and is set to run each weekday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Pinehurst Park, Braun Park, Big Lake Road and Cloquet High School.

Meals are also available for pickup at Washington and Churchill elementary schools and Cloquet Middle School from 11 a.m. to noon, according to the district website.

After Friday, weekly pickup options will still be available to families at each of the school buildings until May when the summer meal program begins, said Beth Dohnansky, Cloquet Food Service director.

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All meals will continue to be free of charge until May through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s been a real positive reception,” Dohnansky said of the community response to the program.

The bags distributed include food for breakfast and lunch, with the lunch options rotating each day.

Preparation for nonperishable items is done the night before each distribution and the rest of the meals are prepared in the morning starting around 10 a.m., when a handful of district employees fill bags in an assembly line fashion and load them onto the buses, according to Dohnansky and district staff.

A member of the kitchen staff and the bus driver take approximately 50 bags on each bus. If they run out of bags, they can have more delivered from other buses or from the schools.

This was the case at the Big Lake Road location, which ran out of food on the first day and has averaged about 50 bags per day since then, said Rhonda Moynan, district employee.

Any leftovers from the three buses are given to B&B Market for donation through the Food Train program, she said.

Cloquet Transportation employee Cal Jorgensen and Moynan worked together at the Big Lake Road location last week and said they have been surprised with the busy pace. Jorgensen kept a book tucked away in his bag, but said he hasn’t had the chance to open it.

“[It’s] nice to see the kids and know they’re eating something,” he said.

Carmen Dougherty  (left) and Buzz Johnson (right) hold bags of food in the bus at Pinehurst Park on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Carmen Dougherty (left) and Buzz Johnson (right) hold bags of food in the bus at Pinehurst Park on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

While the other two bus locations didn't start out as busy as Big Lake Road, officials said they have still seen a number of people using the service.

Karla Cresap has been the district employee working at the Braun Park bus and said they distributed about 15 bags on the first day.

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, Carmen Dougherty was working at the Pinehurst Park location and posted about the service on Facebook hoping to alert more people.

She said there is no limit to how many bags one person can take, and she doesn’t question people when they come to the bus.

Dougherty added that the district tried to place the buses in easy-to-access locations throughout the community so that people could walk to them from their homes, if needed.

More district students are set to return to classrooms Feb. 8, which superintendent Michael Cary said will most likely lead to the food bus program ending as planned on Friday, Feb. 5.

Karla Cresap (left) and Jack Baker (right) stand outside the Braun Park bus on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)
Karla Cresap (left) and Jack Baker (right) stand outside the Braun Park bus on Wednesday, Jan. 27. (Izabel Johnson / ijohnson@pinejournal.com)

There may not be enough employees and buses to continue the service once more students require transportation and are back in school buildings.

“It all comes down to staffing capability,” Cary said.

To sign up for the food service program, call the hotline at 218-878-3079 or apply online at www.isd94.org/Page/1144.