Five yellow school buses and two vans line up outside door 34 at T.C. Williams every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m. for meal deliveries to Alexandria children. School bus 117, which under normal circumstances drives children to school, is today delivering breakfast and lunch meals to Ruby Tucker Community Center and Old Town West.
Volunteer Robbie Schaefer joins a group organized in a human chain efficiently passing the food boxes down the hallway and into the school bus. In real life he says he is a performing musician and songwriter. In five minutes the school bus is loaded and replaced by the next.
William Roos, a school bus driver in normal times, stands outside his school bus waiting for it to be loaded for the 4-Mile Run delivery. Today’s delivery includes a cinnamon bun, citrus juice and milk for breakfast, and turkey and cheese plus a pear or orange and vegetable for lunch. “I usually carry over 400 breakfasts and an equal number of lunches.”
Cynthia Hormel, Director of School Nutrition Services for the City of Alexandria, remembers well the moment when everything changed. “It was 2 p.m. March 13 when I notified the Central Office staff that there would be no school for the next three weeks due to the coronavirus. We had no idea at the time to the degree. I had the feeling earlier that we may go on leave so I had worked on a plan for how to feed the kids — what would that look like? But I had no idea it would happen so quickly.”
Hormel said they had to work immediately on establishment of a feeding program while keeping the staff safe at the same time. The first step was to have parents sign up online to pick up lunch and breakfast at T.C.Williams High School or to request a home delivery. They immediately had 200 sign ups with about half requesting home delivery and half pick up. More requests followed quickly.
The bus drivers got repurposed to deliver the food. “We tried to manage the preorders but after the first week while people liked the idea, the logistics were an issue. People signed up for meals but didn’t come to pick them up or they weren’t available at home for their deliveries.”
Now School Nutrition Services has been able to expand the sites to add deliveries of Grab ‘N Go lunch and breakfast at William Ramsay Elementary, Jefferson-Huston Elementary, Hammond Elementary and Cora Kelly Elementary. After several weeks SNS was able to use a separate funding program to add snacks. However, unless they receive a waiver from the State, the authority to include snacks expires June 30.
In order to reach pockets and regions of need identified by their database, SNS has now expanded the meal deliveries to different parts of the City by adding mobile pop-up locations. These include sites such as Mason Apartments, as well as Ruby Tucker Family Center, and 4-Mile Run. Hormel says, “We just call when we arrive and they come out and pick up their meals.”
Hormel says any child 2-18 years old regardless of income or enrollment in public schools is eligible to receive these meals. Sara Bennett, Deputy Director for School Nutrition Services, says they are currently serving 30-33,000 meals a week. She adds to date, they have served over 350,000 meals.
According to the ACPS meal report for the third week in June, the combined numbers for the Grab N’ Go breakfasts and lunches for Monday and Wednesday ranged from a total of 5,288 at Ramsay to a total of 896 at Jefferson-Houston and 1,524 at Cora Kelly with the total of 12,480 for all school sites. Grab N’ Go lunches and breakfasts for Monday and Wednesday for the pop-up sites ranged from 176 at Old Towne Apt. 1 to 1,208 at 4-Mile Drive and 1,344 at Community Lodgings 4 with a total for the two days of 5,556.
A lunch will include an entry such as pizza, a turkey croissant or chicken Caesar wrap plus two fruits/vegetables, milk and a whole grain component. Hormel says, “We are working on requests for kids who have allergies so we can, for instance, replace peanut butter with sun butter or a yogurt meal. In an extension of Backpack Buddies, which offers weekend meals for needy children during the school year, they have been able to add Saturday meals, and on June 19 a Sunday meal delivery was added to the food services offered to kids.
Hormel says they have been able to run this new system without missing a beat with the enthusiastic participation of their staff that wanted to come in and make this work. “About 50 or so of our staff come in and work in the kitchens of the schools making the meals, and about 30 Volunteer Alexandria staff help pass out meals Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. They have been a wonderful partner.”
Hormel says the biggest challenge has been the unknown. “We played around with a big puzzle piece. When you are in the service industry you think on the spot, but this came at us quickly, and we were scrambling.” She continues, “We had to get acclimated. Just when you think you have it figured out, a new challenge would come.”
She adds that they had to create a new culture and get into the rhythm of feeding the kids while putting in place a safe work environment. “There were a lot of moving parts.” She says the challenge has been identifying and working through logistics; remotely adds an extra layer of difficulty.
Bennett adds, “As with any business, we were faced with something different every day. We needed to problem solve and be flexible.”
The plans moving forward are to maintain the status quo until August 21.