For more than two months now, the Waynesville R-VI School District has been serving thousands of meals to hungry children – Monday through Friday – at four sites and through 31 unique bus routes.
The district, which combined the staff of two elementary school kitchens and mobilized its corps of bus drivers to tackle the project, is quickly approaching a significant milestone in its community food service program. It expects to reach half a million meals served by mid-June, according to Marianne Ward, the district’s director of communications and marketing.
As of Friday, 467,866 meals had been served, she said.
“When you look on paper at what it takes to produce more than 10,000 meals every single day, it’s a logistical challenge,” Superintendent Brian Henry said. “But our staff members forged a can-do attitude and found ways to make it happen while observing social distancing.”
The program began in mid-March following the schools’ spring break, Henry said. The district wanted to alleviate any potential strain on community members.
“From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the Waynesville R-VI School District established two priorities – to continue to educate and feed students,” he said. “About 40 percent of our students receive free and reduced meals, so we knew that it was critical for us to find a way to provide food to families. We initially started with drive-up locations, but then deployed our buses to reach students where they live.”
School bus drivers, whose jobs normally require the safe transportation of students, quickly found themselves as unlikely food courier-heroes, going the extra mile to ensure three meals per day met the hundreds of hungry youngsters.
Tim Hamilton, a driver for the district, said he feels fulfilled to play a role in the initiative which has adapted to the community’s needs.
“It’s a blessing and an honor to do this because there were a lot of people who couldn’t make it to the (stationary) buses,” he said. “So, I’m so happy to see this come.”
Shannon Sisson, a kitchen manager at Freedom Elementary School in St. Robert, said her team prepares about 3,500 meals per day on average. She agreed with Hamilton that the program has inspired a shared, renewed resolve among her and her teammates.
“It really does make you feel like you are making a difference in the community,” she said. “We know there’s kids out there – we’ve seen the kids at school who need that food, so we know that there’s a need.”
Going back to work in the age of COVID-19 “was a little scary at first, but it was worth it going in,” Sisson said. “You knew that these kids needed us. Even when you’re so worried about your circle of family and friends, you’re worried, but this gives you a sense of purpose.”
Amanda Gulley has five children at home who have benefitted from the program directly. She said it has taken immense stress off her shoulders.
“Usually those food service programs are for people who cannot afford to buy food, which I think is a huge resource – I’m glad it’s there – but it wasn’t just for people who couldn’t afford to buy meals,” she said. “For those of us who are suddenly working from home and also teaching from home, it took the added burden off of going to get food – breakfast, lunch and dinner – everyday.”
Gulley, who works as a registered nurse, said she was impressed by the precautions the district has taken to avoid any viral spread.
“Even health care workers are making sure that the people who distribute the food – they were checking their temperatures, doing the screenings, making sure that the people who were delivering the food, preparing the food were healthy, even before it got on the buses,” she said. “It smelled like cleaning products when you picked up the food.”
According to Henry, the funds for the breakfast and lunch meals are provided through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Summer Food Service Program; funding for the third meal – a “super snack” – is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Child and Adult Food Care Program.
“It is so rewarding to know that amidst a national crisis that we have found a way to keep kids fed – not just our students but all children age 18 and under,” he said. “What has been especially important is that all families – regardless of income – are eligible to receive the meals.”
Henry said it’s simple for families to get involved.
“There is no enrollment,” he added. “There is no paperwork on the part of families. All children age 18 and under and qualified mentally and physically handicapped adults who participate in a school program are eligible.”
In addition to the preselected bus routes, the district will continue handing out food through June at drive-up stations located at Wood and Freedom elementary schools, and Waynesville High School. District officials said plans are in place to keep the program going through late July and August.
Until then, district employees said they will continue to serve.
“(The program) has really been an incredible experience that I’ll be able to tell my grandkids about someday,” Sisson said.
For more information, contact the Waynesville R-VI School District at 740.842.2040.