The school nutrition employees, bus drivers and volunteers in Bartow County’s two school systems have gone above and beyond to ensure students are being fed every day during the coronavirus closure.
Together, the two districts have delivered or distributed a total of 97,016 meals to students 18 and younger since schools closed March 16 and have no plans to stop any time soon.
“We will continue as long as possible – at least to the end of the school year – and plan to operate some sort of summer meals program,” Cartersville School Nutrition Director Christina Nichols said. “Many of our students rely on school breakfast and lunch to provide a consistent source of meals. Maintaining availability of these meals was our initial goal. As the program has gone on, we've seen that this is helping students at all income levels, and we are thankful for the opportunity to serve our community.”
Nichols said the nutrition and transportation departments, which are preparing and delivering the free meals two days a week, have served a total of 34,296 breakfasts and lunches so far: 8,276 meals the week of March 16; 11,170 meals the week of March 23; and 14,850 meals the week of March 30.
“We had our highest number of meals distributed on Monday, March 30, with 8,322 meals served,” she said. “We served six meals to 1,387 students that day.”
On average, six nutrition staff members are working at each of the system’s four school kitchens to prepare the meals, and another six school staff members are helping in the cafeteria or outside loading buses, Nichols said.
“Participation in our program continues to increase, and we try to limit the number of people at each kitchen,” she said. “Having all of our kitchens open allows us to meet both of these needs.”
Each week, 32 bus drivers deliver six meals per student on Monday to cover the first three days of the week and four meals on Thursday to cover the last two days, plus an additional bag of food for Backpack Buddies, to 164 bus stops, according to Transportation Supervisor Kim Black.
“During the normal school year, our drivers do a great job with making sure safety is their top priority, communicating with one another and working as a team,” she said. “I have seen that same professionalism continue now that they are delivering meals instead of students.”
Nichols said delivering only two days a week was deemed to be the safest way to distribute meals and still keep the students fed.
“One of the questions our district leaders looked at when determining the school meals delivery process was how do we continue to support our students with good, nutritious meals and safeguard, as much as possible, our staff members who are preparing and delivering the food?” she said. “We decided to deliver enough food to cover breakfast and lunch for the week in two deliveries.”
Breakfast consists of an entrée, usually Pop-Tarts or something similar, as well as fruit and milk while lunch includes an entrée – typically a turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwich – vegetables, fruit and milk, all based on USDA guidelines, Nichols said.
“We have been increasing variety in our lunches where possible so, for example, we are now serving edamame and jicama,” she said. “We have been somewhat limited on our lunch entree choices but are working toward providing at least one hot lunch entree per week. Stay tuned.”
Once the meals have been prepared, school staff members are able to load the buses in about 30 minutes, and it takes the drivers about an hour to run the routes, Nichols said.
“One thing that has been fantastic is seeing how much the bus drivers help each other out while they are out delivering,” she said. “We give each bus a certain number of meals based on the previous serving day's participation, but sometimes, this dramatically changes. For example, on one of our routes, we served four students the first day and 103 students on Monday. That is fantastic and takes teamwork between the drivers to ensure that there is enough food to cover each route without having a ton left over.”
Nichols said there have been questions about delivery locations for students who don’t have bus stops, but “this has not been an issue because there are existing bus stops for students at our other schools nearby.”
“For example, a CES student living on Old Mill Road doesn't ride the bus, but there are stops on Old Mill Road for the middle and high school students who live there,” she said. “Also, we have been directing our out-of-district students to the bus stop closest to their home.”
She added there is no registration required for students to receive the meals.
Nichols praised the staff members who have worked so hard to feed Cartersville’s students every day.
“Our school system has always known that our school nutrition and transportation staffs go above and beyond, but I think now the rest of our community is really getting the chance to see that,” she said. “We are deeply appreciative.”
Since its first day of distribution on March 17, the Bartow County nutrition department has served 62,720 lunches and 62,720 snacks – 11,590 the first week, 24,670 the second week and 26,460 the third week – to students, either through delivery to their bus stops or pick up at four elementary schools, according to school system officials.
“For this unexpected school closure, Bartow County school nutrition is conducting the USDA Seamless Summer Option to provide meals to children 18 or under,” School Nutrition Director Oreal Oladele said. “This program operates similar to the regular school year but does not require meal applications. All children ages 0-18 may receive a meal, regardless of meal eligibility status.”
Transportation Director Jody Elrod said the county has 146 drivers delivering more than 4,300 meals to more than 1,300 bus stops daily as well as an additional 500-plus Backpack Buddies meals on Fridays.
“I cannot say enough good things about our school bus drivers,” he said. “They have been great the entire time. They love the kids on their bus routes, and I know they take great pride in helping them and our parents out during this difficult time in our county. They truly have a servant’s heart.”
Meals are prepared by school nutrition employees at Adairsville, Cloverleaf, Emerson and Hamilton Crossing elementary schools and loaded onto buses by paraprofessionals and other volunteers. Then drivers spend one to two hours delivering them to the assigned bus stops, according to Elrod.
Parents also may pick up meals curbside, if they prefer, at these four sites every day between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
All meals follow the USDA meal pattern guidelines and include an entree with whole grains, fruit, vegetable and milk, according to School Nutrition Coordinator Emily Miller.
“Currently, our meals also include a two-part snack,” she said.
Oladele said parents who want their students added to bus delivery should call the central office at 770-606-5800.
Funding for the meal program comes from the federal government and is based upon participation, Nichols said, noting it’s not just for those on the free or reduced lunch program.
“We really encourage students from all income levels to participate because this helps support our program and gives us a greater ability to serve our students,” she said.
Nichols said she isn’t sure how much the program will end up costing.
“It's hard to say because our operating expenses are so different than the regular school year because of the buses, staff, different packaging and specialty products we are having to procure to meet the USDA nutrition standards,” she said.