Schools across West Virginia closed Monday, March 16, for at least two weeks in an effort to help stem the transmission of the coronavirus.
Since the shutdown was announced, West Virginians around the state have been working to make sure students are fed. According to the West Virginia Department of Education, more than two-thirds of school-aged children, or more than 183,000, qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.
Mountaineers are getting creative. Some schools are offering curbside food pickups, putting lunches on school busses, and in some communities restaurants, food banks and churches are stepping up.
West Virginians are finding ways to come together in this time where people are being asked to socially distance.
Providing In Wheeling
Word started to get out that schools would likely be closing. That’s when Bob Bailey, who’s had a catering business in the upper Ohio Valley for almost three decades, said he had a sobering moment of realization.
“There are children that their main meal, or their only meal of the day, is their school lunch,” he said.
Bailey put out a call on social media asking residents of Ohio and Marshall counties to: “please contact my business if a child relies on school lunches for their main meal of the day... I will gladly provide hot meals for children in need.”
In three days, he said more than 600 people responded, many offering to help.
“There were so many people reaching out saying, ‘Do you need money? Do you need people to come help pack lunches? Do you need people to run deliveries?’” he said.
Bailey said he received some financial donations that he’s set aside to defray food costs and that allowed him to buy biodegradable food containers. It didn’t take long to receive requests from families, including one set of grandparents who live nearby and are on a fixed income. They’re watching three grandchildren during the school closures.
“She contacted me yesterday, and she said she doesn't know how she's going to feed these children,” Bailey said. “So she came today and she cried, and then she made me cry.”
He said to keep in line with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control to remain at least six feet apart, the two pretended to hug. He sent her home with meals ready to be made in the microwave or oven.
Bailey is already familiar with how to feed a variety of kids. His business, As You Like It Catering, regularly provides school lunches to Montessori’s, learning centers, preschools and elementary schools.
“We're prepared. We know the right amount of proteins, grains, vegetables and fruits. So we make all of them balanced,” he said. “We have to follow those if we're going to do the school lunches so we are providing all of that.”
So far, Bailey has put about 300 meals together. He provides families with enough food to last them through the week and sometimes throws in a little extra. He’s gotten additional requests this week and is now also preparing for next week.
Schools Get Creative
The state Department of Education is playing a large role in ensuring students across the state’s 55 counties have access to food while school is out. Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools, said as of Monday, 505 drop sites are serving meals to kids.
In a news release, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a waiver application from the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition to continue feeding students even though school would not be in session. Burch said they are currently working with the National Guard and other community resources like food pantries on how meals would be distributed.
Each school district has been given leeway to develop a plan that suits their individual needs.
“We asked them in a very short time period to come up with a plan to serve all their children who needed meals,” he said. “In some areas it’s a grab and go where you actually come to the school and pick it up. In other areas they’re actually running school busses to school bus stops, families homes, and I think you’ll see even other places where they’re actually tapping into community resources to get those meals out there.”
In Morgantown, Monongalia County Schools is providing curbside pickup of hot lunches between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, at all of the district’s 17 schools.
“During these uncertain times, we're not sure what will happen from day to day or minute to minute, and this gives, I think, a little bit of comfort to students that they know they can come to their school and still get a school lunch,” said Brian Kiehl, director of child nutrition for Monongalia County schools.
Kiehl said the staff is still figuring out how many lunches to make each day during the coronavirus closure. They handed out about 400 meals on Monday, more than 900 on Tuesday and about 1,500 on Wednesday. On a normal day they make about 6,500.
In the Eastern Panhandle, schools in Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan, Mineral, Hampshire, Hardy, Grant and Pendleton counties are all providing their K-12 students free breakfast and lunch through this closure period -- regardless of whether they normally receive free meals.
Some counties in the Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands region are offering meals-to-go at all of their school locations -- while others have centralized food pick up at specific schools. Additionally, like Morgantown, some counties are offering delivery services by utilizing bus routes.
Officials say students from the Eastern Panhandle region may pick up meals at any school in their county offering grab-and-go meals, regardless of whether they attend that school or not.
And at least three counties, Grant, Berkeley and Jefferson, say they’ll feed any child, ages 1-18, if they show up at one of their pick up locations.
Patrick Murphy, Berkeley County superintendent of schools, said schools play a pivotal role in the well-being of their communities.
“I think as a community agency we … have a responsibility to make sure people are safe, and we have the element of being able to provide them meals and nutrition,” he said.
Specific lists for pick up locations in all eight of the Eastern Panhandle counties are posted on county board websites, can be found via social media or by calling their county education board.
‘We Are Ready’
Across the state, there are also grassroots efforts bubbling up to make sure kids don’t go hungry.
Several Facebook groups have formed to help coordinate these efforts and connect volunteers, faith leaders, bus drivers, school cafeteria workers and local chefs. One group, called WV Food ER, began with two people, but in the past several days, the group has evolved into an effort by more than 2,000 people to assist local school systems ensure that children are being fed.
“Bus drivers and school service personnel are like all about this,” said Elizabeth Brunello, one of the coordinators of the group. “They see their responsibility to just step forward and it's pretty amazing to see.”
She said in rural areas, it can be challenging to ensure food is being delivered to children in need.
Communities across the Southern Coalfields know this challenge well. Many have come together to work it out, and many say, this is nothing new.
“Well, let me tell you, this is McDowell County. We stay in disaster mode every day. So you know, we're, we are ready,” said Linda McKinney who runs McDowell County’s Five Loaves and Two Fishes food pantry.
McKinney typically serves 1,200 people a month and expects that number to go up. In two days, 76 families requested food, which she said averages to about 500 people. To avoid large gatherings, she is having people pick up food by appointment only.
But getting that food down to the region is not necessarily easy with businesses shutting down and people being advised to stay home. This is where the National Guard comes in. Major Holli Nelson said the guard is collaborating with the West Virginia Department of Education to streamline food distribution throughout the state, but especially to the southern part of the state.
“We are very rural in how our population lives,” Nelson said. “We have a lot of mountains that we have to deal with. There's connectivity issues, getting the word out of how to best push the information out to those who need it most.”
The Department of Education is also directly collaborating with staff in the coalfields to identify areas of high need, as options like bussing food to kids can be uniquely challenging in the southern region, according to Amanda Harrison, executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition.
“Late last week, our state experienced flooding in certain locations, and so we have to consider safety in terms of routes that are being taken,” she said.
There are also examples of people providing food on a very local level, not in an official state-directed capacity.
That includes Spencer’s Catering and Carry-out, also in McDowell County. It is a mom and daughter-owned business that is usually open Friday and Saturday. But this week, manager Ashley Spencer said they provided lunch and home food deliveries Monday and Tuesday, adding that more than 50 kids came in to eat on Monday.
“Their meals at school are the only meals they have, so I definitely wanted to make sure Monday we were ready to go, because they had the weekend and a lot of them didn't have food,” Spencer said.
In Boone County, Mick Frye, senior pastor of the Fountain of Life Worship Center, said they are providing a free hot lunch for kids and families, no questions asked.
“Spaghetti, we got string cheese, a little bit of yogurt, some carrots and then also, you know, some ice cream, something like that, just something kids like,” Frye said.
The church has a bus ministry that provides free transportation to church service and Frye said that is helping them reach out to families who they know need food right now.
He said he is quite hopeful that kids will get fed in the Southern Coalfields.
“You know, we know poverty, and people have always been willing to reach out and even when times were rough, you know, West Virginia and southern West Virginians have always known how to get through those things because we just come together and help each other,” Frye said.
So although coronavirus is a very new type of crisis to hit the region, many southern West Virginians said this is nothing new, that the resiliency of the communities will help see them through this pandemic and maybe they can even be a model, again, for other communities throughout the country.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.