Twinsburg company works to bridge food gap for kids during COVID-19 pandemic

April Helms
Akron Beacon Journal
The staff at On-Call Meal Solutions prepares food packages, which will be shipped out later.

When COVID-19 shuttered school buildings, some families relying on school meals found themselves scrambling.

While many districts allowed students who are learning remotely to pick up meals at the school, that posed a problem for students who had no way to get to the pickup location, said Sharon Roberson-Evans, marketing director for Innovation Food Service in Twinsburg.

"Students don't always have the transportation to get there, especially the younger ones," Roberson-Evans said. 

So Thomas Lane, the president of Innovation Food Service, decided to work on a way to deliver food directly to students. He started doing just that in December, working with FedEx, which offered to enter into a partnership for On-Call Meal Solutions. 

Meals prepared by On-Call Meal Solutions are prepared to be shipped.

"I grew up here in Twinsburg," said Lane, who now lives in Aurora. "From kindergarten through graduation, I ate a free or reduced lunch every day. It meant so much to me growing up."

With On-Call Meal Solutions, the school or school district registers with the company so meals can be shipped directly to the student's house. The schools are reimbursed as if the student were eating at the school, and there is no cost to the family.

"It's a win-win-win for everybody," Lane said. 

Indeed, the biggest challenge, Lane said, "is that the program we offer is very much a 'too good to be true' sounding sort of thing."

"We are just looking to be a tool in a schools toolbox to help them fix a problem they typically cannot overcome on their own, creating a meal access solution for a child learning remotely that cannot get to her or his school to pick up meals," Lane said. "So in the end, we are not looking to serve every child in a school system.  We are just looking to help a school feed those students experiencing food scarcity that might be falling through the cracks in terms of meal accessibility."

Roberson-Evans said another advantage with having meals delivered, rather than going to pick up the food, was taking away "the stigma of being the 'poor kid.' "

Lane said that On-Call Meal Solutions sends out about 1,500 boxes a week to families, with a week's worth of food including seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven snacks.

Taylor Amyotte, a sous chef at On-Call Meal Solutions, sautés Brussels sprouts for the food packages that will be shipped out later.

The number of meals delivered is up to the family, Roberson-Evans said.

"We have some students that are participating with as little as two meals," she said. "We can offer consultation to anyone who wants to use this program. While we do have menus, we do work around diet restrictions and other needs. We have the largest scratch kitchen in Northeast Ohio. Tom is a former chef, that's what led him down this path."

Lane added that On-Call Meal Solutions has a dietitian on the staff who can help plan meals for those with special dietary needs. Lane said that early on in the pandemic, On-Call Meal Solutions had a similar program where it delivered meals to homebound senior citizens. If a senior had kidney issues, the staff could provide meals that reflected that person's dietary needs and restrictions.

"We are well-versed in managing not only allergy issues, but medical issues," Lane said. 

Akron-area schools that use On-Call Meal Solutions include the Schnee Learning Center in Cuyahoga Falls and The Imagine Leadership Academy in Akron.

History

Lane said his business started in 2002 "as a storefront restaurant and catering business that just evolved in this direction." In 2008, he said he started offering meal delivery for places such as child care centers. By 2015, he had made the switch to providing meals to agencies "when I saw this was the future."

"Twinsburg is such a great crossroads for business," Lane said, adding that the city's location and access to the freeways made it ideal. 

Before the pandemic, Lane said that his company delivered 7,500 meals a day throughout the region, including Summit, Stark, Portage, Columbiana and Mahoning counties.

"When we had the shutdowns, we knew there was money earmarked for helping seniors, so we went around and found senior apartment complexes," Lane said. "We got seniors registered and started shipping a week's worth of meals."

As the pandemic wore on, senior programming was reduced, Lane said, so On-Call branched out to to provide meals for students. 

"It took us six months from the concept to doing it," Lane said. "We haven't come across anyone else who is doing anything close to it."

Senior sites On-Call delivers to currently include Twinsburg Senior Apartments.

Community help

The staff at On-Call Meal Solutions is asking the community to send letters of encouragement to the company that would be included with the meals.

"We need members of the community to donate hand-written 'letters of hope,'" Lane said. "We want to encourage our students and let them know they are not alone during these unprecedented times. The letters of hope will be placed inside each home delivery.”

All letters will be screened, Lane added. Those wishing to send letters should send them to On-Call Meal Solutions, 1550 Enterprise Parkway, Twinsburg 44087.

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com

Kyle Carroll, delivery supervisor at On-Call Meal Solutions, loads up a truck with prepared meals.