Lynchburg City Schools (LCS) utilized its bus service to deliver meals to students while learning was fully remote from the start of coronavirus through October. But when some students started coming back for in-person instruction, all of the buses were needed to get kids to school while adhering to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. And the Virginia district needed a new way to bring food to those who continued staying home.
During the spring, summer and early fall, LCS distributed meals to some 3,000 students per day through a hybrid model. Families could come to one of the district’s five curbside pickup sites or opt to have meals delivered straight to the doors, with school bus drivers delivering food boxes along their typical pickup routes.
“So many of our students rely on our transportation to get to school, and as a consequence of that, they also relied on the buses bringing food to them,” says Beth Morris, Lynchburg City Schools director of school nutrition. “Even though we had curbside, they weren’t in a position to get to those curbside locations.”
Morris knew early on that using school buses for meal delivery would be temporary. So in June, she applied for a grant from No Kid Hungry, the national campaign run by the anti-hunger and anti-poverty nonprofit Share Our Strength, that could be put toward buying a dedicated food delivery van.
LCS was awarded a $40,000 grant in early November—and Morris immediately got to work on looking for a van and setting up the new delivery system. By New Year’s she had purchased a vehicle and hot and cold holding units (the van wasn’t insulated) and hired a dedicated driver to deliver meals. Based on the families who still wanted delivery, Morris worked with LCS’s transportation department to develop four routes. “We do a route on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Over those four days we’re serving just under 250 students. Many of them are from the same families so it averages to about 40 delivery locations a day,” Morris explains.
Food boxes are prepped and packed at one of four different schools each delivery day, and the van starts out wherever the prep work took place. “So the work is being spread around,” Morris says. Each box includes a week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, suppers and snacks designed to meet federal school meal requirements plus a gallon of milk. Because many of the students receiving the boxes are home alone during the day, all of the meals are fully prepped and can be eaten without reheating. “We have cold subs, chef salads, PB&J sandwiches, sunflower seeds, hummus, lots of fresh fruit and fresh-cut vegetables,” Morris says. The deliveries also contain a hot entrée, which is intended to be eaten the day the food is dropped off.
LCS is still offering curbside pickup for remote families and is also back to making meals to be served in-person for students who are back at school. “Keeping the logistics of the different menus straight for all of the programs has been a big challenge,” says Morris. She keeps the menus streamlined by offering a basic hot entrée or cold sandwich for in-person learners each day and making those same items work for curbside and delivery.
Students who are in-person get the hot entrée in school and can take home the cold sandwich for when they’re remote. For curbside, they get the option of the hot entrée and take the cold sandwich for their second meal. Those on the delivery route get the hot entrée plus additional cold items for the rest of the week. The system is mostly manageable, but unexpected sourcing issues can turn into major challenges. “When a distributor is out of stock, what are we going to replace it with?” Morris asks.
Other problems have popped up too. COVID cases resulted in two separate sites needing to quarantine over the course of a month, leading to staffing shortages. The delivery van has had to contend with snow and ice storms too. “If we can’t run the route one day, those families are out of meals for a week,” Morris says. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure there’s no disruption in access for meals.”
The situation has called for serious juggling and flexibility, and through it all, Morris’s team has stepped up to find solutions. “We’ve come together to meet the basic needs of our kids whether they’re in the building or not,” she says. “If there’s ever been a time I’ve been proud to be a school nutrition professional, it’s during this pandemic.”