Since March 17, after COVID-19 forced the shutdown of all Bulloch County schools, the school system has served more than 250,000 meals to children in the community. A massive project that changed daily in its initial stages, the program’s success is hugely dependent on the passion of those involved and their teamwork effort.
Ten buses and one school district SUV make 69 stops around the county every day, Monday through Friday, to hand out sacks of food for breakfast and lunch. Initially, between 15 and 20 stops were identified, but daily evaluations and refinements enlarged that number to almost 70 stops to meet the needs of the children of Bulloch County. It was announced earlier this week that the meals programs would be extended through July 17.
Bulloch County Schools Transportation Director Janet Tanner said, “We hit the ground running after those first sessions. Lots of moving parts in March, with everybody working long hours and evaluating every single day to see what changes we needed to make for the rest of the week.”
Tanner said she was amazed from the very beginning at the show of teamwork to make the plan successful.
“Our organization is wonderful,” she said. “Everyone wanted so much to see that these kids were fed, from bus drivers to bus monitors, from para pros to school food service workers. They all worked long hours to get these kids fed.”
Tanner said even bus mechanics stopped repairs daily to help load meals on buses before returning to their regular duties. “Without their teamwork, we wouldn’t have gotten the job done.”
Dedicated bus drivers
Tanner also said that the bus drivers have gotten a bit possessive with their routes.
“We had a core-nine group of drivers from the very beginning, and we planned to rotate out. They didn’t want to do that, to give up the families they were taking care of.”
Many felt this way, but Tanner shared one example.
“As the program evolved, one particular route required more than 500 meals on one bus for bus driver Josh Littles. When I told him we were going to have to split his route, he begged me not to take his meals. He said those were his babies and he wanted to make sure they were fed. He was emotionally invested in the children on his route.
“He’d gotten to know those families, and when they walked up to the bus, he knew how many sacks of food they needed, before they even told him. It broke his heart for me to split his load into three drivers.”
Tanner said she was so impressed to see such love in the bus driver’s heart for the kids he was serving.
Bus driver Parcella Moseley feels the same way about the kids she serves during the pandemic and said that many of them were already part of her bus route during the school year.
“The parents and kids are very thankful,” Moseley said. “Us being there every day, they know they’ll get food every day. I blow my horn going into the locations where I deliver and the kids come out smiling – that’s a good thing.”
Moseley said a grandfather expressed his appreciation to her when the program began.
“He suddenly became the caregiver for his grandkids, and he didn’t have the money to provide for them,” she said. “He was very grateful for the program.”
School Social Worker Director Keith Wilke agrees that it’s taken a village to feed the community children and said he was pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming community support for the meal program. “It’s been really great to see all of Bulloch County coming out, from one end of the county to the other, to help feed our kids.”
Wilke said he’s felt especially rewarded to know that although the meals are available for every child in Bulloch County, many of those served have great food insecurities, mentioning that even those who are homeless and unsheltered, some living in cars, are met discreetly and provided meals on a daily basis.
“We’re here to help people as much as possible,” Wilke said. “Even though things are turned upside-down right now, even though times are tough, we can reassure them, they can depend on getting food from us. We still want school to be a constant, for the families to know that they can count on the schools to support them.”
Preparing the meals
Megan Blanchard, school nutrition director, is responsible for coordinating the workers to prepare the meals and bags, menu planning and ordering food and overseeing the day-to-day operations of the feed-a-kid program. She also ensures that the program complies with USDA nutrition standards, along with meeting site requirements and program regulations.
Blanchard said an unexpected surprise from the program was the relationships forged within the food service organization. During a typical school year, food service employees are scattered all across the county at various school buildings.
“With all of the school food service workers in one location, it has really brought our department, along with other departments, closer together,” she said. “It really makes me happy to see our school system work together to take care of our children.”
Blanchard said she’d had the opportunity to ride the bus on occasion. “It really shows the impact that this program is having on the kids when you see their smiling faces greet us at each stop.”
School Nutrition Specialist RayAnn Lee said that a favorite task for those taking part in providing the meals is to accompany the bus driver on a route.
“That is where the heart strings are pulled,” she said. “Seeing the smiling faces of the children excited to see us, excited to receive their meals, and hearing teary-eyed moms tell us just how much these meals mean to their family has made the biggest impact on me.
“In this uncertain time, where we are to be socially distancing ourselves, it has been neat to watch the Bulloch County School System pull together,” Lee said. “There has been so much support poured out to the school nutrition department for this meal program from every other area in the school system, all for one common goal: make sure our kids have food to eat each weekday. I feel we have become even stronger through this pandemic.”