May 2—HAMLET — Over 1.3 million meals have been served to Richmond County students during the pandemic.
Virtual learning forced school nutrition and transportation employees to adapt immediately to a changing environment last March.
"We never shut down or lost a meal," said Lois Hood, director of child nutrition for Richmond County Schools. "We did whatever it took to get those meals out — there wasn't a waiting period."
At the height of the pandemic, 200-250 meals were distributed on each bus. Currently, there's about 150 meals distributed by 20 buses operating in the county.
Lunch is given out each day, along with breakfast for the following morning. Every student learns from home on Wednesday, so children are given two meals each Tuesday.
"This was a big undertaking from our county and a lot of added responsibility," said Debbie Blake, director of transportation for RCS.
Blake said there was a lot of "leg work" done to make sure that every meal was matched up with the correct address. Some parents have had to have their children stay with a family member at a different address during school hours, and Blake said it's a challenge making sure they don't skip over these kids.
"These bus drivers love these children," said Blake. "They wanted to make sure that those kids were fed. People don't realize when you're loading 50 lunches in a box and get them in the seats, it's a lot of extra work other than being behind the wheel and delivering children."
Bus driver Gregory Riggins drops students off at school in the morning and delivers meals after his initial route.
"Going house to house with no kids on the bus — it's a lot less noisy," Riggins said.
On his route around Hamlet, children come out of their houses to pick up their food before returning to their work.
Priscilla Whittington, cafeteria manager at Hamlet Middle School, said the hardest thing has been their staff not being able to connect with students.
"It's sad — they come in, pick up their little plates and go to the classroom to eat," Whittington said. "That's the only time we see them."
Whittington said the pandemic made their routine completely different, and they've had to accomplish about twice as much work. All meals are the same for virtual and in-person students.
A few of the favorite meals are the pizza, chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes, according to Hood. Chick-fil-A sandwiches have also been popular. There's always a fruit or vegetable, and juice or milk along with every meal.
At the beginning of the pandemic, food was prepared for them to eat over the weekend as well. For longer breaks, such as Easter, Hood said schools were able to pack five meals and send them home that Friday. Extra meals are prepared before any holiday.
All meals are at no cost to families because of the federally-funded Community Eligibility program, which every student qualifies for due to the poverty rate of the county. Hood stated that the county would lose a lot of income if they were unable to serve students and that their quick response to pandemic has helped financially.
Hood said the main difficulty through the pandemic has been getting food from the distributors. They've been unable to have a regular menu, due to the constantly changing supply.
Meals have always been offered over the summer, but Hood expects that there will be lot more students that they will need to provide for this year. There will not be bus delivery, but each school will become a pick-up location.
"Sometimes, these are the only meals some of those kids get," Hood said. "It's a good feeling knowing that they have food in their stomachs."
To support the Richmond County Daily Journal, subscribe at https://www.yourdailyjournal.com/subscribe.
Reach Matthew Sasser at 910-817-2671 or [email protected]