Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) ran out of food Thursday as the school system tried to help families stock up on meals for the winter break. 

JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert confirmed there were long lines of cars at many meal sites, and that workers had to turn many families away after the food ran out. At some sites, food ran out in less than an hour.

The district had planned to provide 11 heatable meals and 19 breakfasts and snacks per child to hold families over the winter break, when meal sites will be closed. Food workers have spent months planning for the effort, called “Operation Winter Break.” They prepared 4 pounds of chili per child, three quarts of milk, bags of fresh produce, chicken patties and cereal. 

The district ordered provisions based on the number of people who have been coming to meal pickups the district has held on Tuesdays and Thursdays since March, said JCPS director of nutrition services Julia Baushcer. They ordered enough to serve 20% more people than on the average day.

But it still wasn’t enough.

“Because we had so many additional people show up that have not taken advantage of the program before, there were a lot of them we couldn’t serve,” she said.

Many JCPS students faced food insecurity even before the pandemic. About 65,000 JCPS students were already on free- or reduced-priced lunch because their families are low-income. 

“There is a great need in the community,” Baushcer said. “You know, ordinarily 67% of our kids are on free-and reduced-[price] meals. So they face food insecurity, especially during a pandemic.”

By many estimates the need is even greater now, as parents have lost jobs and income because of the pandemic.

Asked what the district could do differently to avoid running out of food in the future, Bauscher was unsure. She said JCPS is limited in how much it can give out at one time based on the amount of storage and preparation space available across the district’s kitchens. 

“Practically every cafeteria in the district had to become a dry storage area for us because of the amount of food we needed to provide these meals,” she said.

On a normal, non-pandemic school day, the district serves an average of 100,000 meals through the National School Lunch Program. On Thursday, JCPS served more than 10 times that: 1,029,000 meals and snacks. Those went to about 21,000 students, she said.

Bauscher thinks for future long breaks, the district will reevaluate and consider providing fewer meals, but to more families. She thinks the amount of meals being provided at one time created extra demand.

“Families that might not ordinarily want to show up to get two days worth of meals, or three days worth of meals, now found it more lucrative to show up and get meals for the winter break,” she said.

The evening meal sites are closed Thursday, because there is no food left.

JCPS meal sites reopen on Jan. 5. In the meantime, families who need help finding food can contact Dare To Care or call 2-1-1.

You can also find a meal site near you here.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.