In March 2020, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools held a meeting with community leaders and representatives of various departments where they discussed how to continue supplying free meals to students during a lockdown that might last three weeks.
Nearly a year later, this program, Food for Students, has supplied over a million meals.
This operation grew out of the framework the district already had set up for a similar service it runs during the summer — but this exists on a much larger scale and has grown even more since it began. Christine Cotton, special projects manager for CHCCS, said in March there were 37 sites supplied by 13 buses. Currently, 20 buses visit 50 sites.
One driver, Jannai Rodgers, arrives at work at 10 a.m. and has her temperature taken before she inspects and sanitizes bus no. 7. By 10:30 a.m., she and her team of two others leave the bus lot for Northside Elementary School, where they receive food from the dining staff.
Then it's off to their site to unload and distribute. By 1:15 p.m., the bus is back at the lot for an end of day sanitation. If any extra meals are left over, Rodgers has permission to drop them off with families on her way back from work.
“Like everybody with anything, since we've been thrown out of routine because of the pandemic, we're all looking to get back into it,” she said. “This has become our regular routine.”
At the sites, students and families come up and get their food from volunteers and workers. Marne Meredith, a social worker for CHCCS, has previously worked with the summer food program and volunteered to help with this new project. She was impressed by how swiftly such a large system could be set up.
“I'm just really thankful how quick they got it running up in March and I know the families have really felt supported by it,” she said.
In addition to running these sites, there are some cases where food is delivered directly to the student’s door — something usually reserved for families who cannot make the trip out to a site. All they have to do is contact the program to have volunteers take the food to them.
George Everding, another driver who received his first face mask as a gift from a volunteer, works on the door-to-door deliveries. He appreciates the role the program plays in maintaining community ties during isolation.
“If it's rainy and muddy, we walk in the mud and go do it,” he said. “Simple food served with love is a gift.”
Food for Students has made an effort to not only provide food, but also connect with students. This has included dropping off ingredients for recipes like blueberry muffins, posting videos for students and supplying them with activities like gardening kits.
“We're not just about a brown bag full of food,” Liz Cartano, the director of dining, said. “Our department is not just about the food. It’s how can we make that connection matter every day.”
The journey has not been without challenges. In April, several members of the transportation team were exposed to the virus and the department had to quarantine for two weeks.
“We could've just said, ‘No we’re just not gonna be able to do this,' especially when transportation closed up,” Julie Hennis, a volunteer coordinator, said. “We just decided to keep doing it, to figure it out.”
During that time, volunteers stepped in and delivered the food until the buses were running again.
One new volunteer during that time was Solomon Gibson III, who learned about the program while walking near a middle school. He saw some cars pull up to the school during delivery time and recognized someone he knew from the summer food service. Curious, he asked what they were doing. Upon learning the bus drivers were quarantined, he offered to help.
“Getting people food that need it,” he said. “I mean, why wouldn’t you?”
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