Many students around North Georgia are missing out on meals that they rely on as a result of schools closing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the Hall County School System is working to combat this issue by delivering free meals to their students.
McEver Arts Academy in Gainesville is one school in the HCSS that is serving as a food preparation and pickup point. Staff arrive as early as 5 a.m. to begin preparing and packaging around 1200 meals to be delivered around their school zone.
The delivery program began on March 16th with around 250 lunches. In less than a week the program has expanded to double the amount of lunches and include breakfast. About 50 meals also go out each day to families who choose to pick up their food.
After the meals are packaged, school staff load them onto Hall County school buses for transport. The bus drivers then run their regular routes to deliver the meals with school staff on board to help with distribution.
While most of the bus drivers run the elementary school bus route, middle and high school students are also encouraged to take meals.
Ben Tanner, School Nutrition Manager with Hall County Food Services, said the high and middle schools are funneling meals down to the elementary schools for packaging and delivery. He said this flow benefits the entire school system because all school levels are included.
“We’ve got elementary, middle and high that we’re reaching out to so I feel like we’re doing a good job of standing in the gap during this time,” said Tanner.
The meals primarily include foods that are non-perishable. The school system is also striving to use food that they had already ordered so nothing goes to waste.
“We’re looking to do some more shelf-stable items for breakfast [that] we can deliver and students can heat them up in their microwave or they’re safe to eat at room temperature as well,” said Tanner.
Tanner said HCSS gained a special waiver from the Georgia Department of Education and the United States Department of Agriculture to provide free meals for students ages 18 and under. He said it’s the same program that provides meals for summer school and provided meals during Hurricane Irma.
In addition to delivering meals, McEver Arts Academy staff take school supplies with them to give to students who need them. Some teachers take lesson plans with them to deliver to students who need extra help learning at home. A couple of school computers are even loaned out, since many lessons require a digital format.
Brittney Bennett, principal of McEver Arts Academy, said the delivery program gives staff a great opportunity to check on their students.
“We’re able to provide the meals, the academics and check in on their social and emotional well-being,” said Bennett. “There’s so much isolation right now with people in their homes so we’re able to check on them, make sure their needs are being met and just serve.”
Even though the delivery program requires an early morning for staff, they still manage to make the service fun.
Michael Wilcox, a bus driver for the McEver Arts Academy, is more than happy to do his part to provide meals for the students during a difficult time.
“Mr. Mike [is] on the front lines!” said Wilcox. “We’re fighting the coronavirus. It better go somewhere and hide because here I come!”
Bennett said she is exceptionally proud of her staff for stepping up to help.
“The number of teachers that said, ‘hey, how can I help?’ and the number of teachers that have been coming out and riding the bus every morning has been phenomenal,” said Bennett. “It really shows how we come together as a community to serve our community.”
While the delivery program is scheduled to run through March 26th, Tanner said the school system will do everything it can to continue the program indefinitely.
“We’re here for the duration,” said Tanner.