Schools across West Virginia are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and according to the state Board Of Education, all 55 counties in West Virginia have organized feeding programs to provide meals for their students.
Each county has its own system for getting meals to its students. Sometimes that means delivering a weeks’ worth of meals all in one day, but in Cabell County, school bus drivers are making those deliveries every day.
A few weeks ago on Thursday at 6 a.m. in an alley behind the Cabell County Board of Education, Assistant Superintendent Kim Cooper supervisied a line of workers as they pulled milk crates off a refrigerated truck. About 9,000 packed meals were to be distributed to about 50 sites across the county to feed children.
County officials said this will continue for as long as necessary. In Cabell County between 50 and 90 percent of students rely on free meals at schools (the exact number varies at each school). With kids staying at home, the majority of children in the county would be unable to access two of their three daily meals without the help of others.
On that Thursday, Rhonda McCoy, the county schools' food services director, and her staff began preparing meals at 5 a.m.
“We have 20 cooks over here. Some are making the sandwiches, some are fixing the bags. Others are preparing the coolers to get them ready to go out," McCoy said.
Her team filled breakfast bags with milk or juice and either a cereal bar or cereal and lunch bags with sandwiches, chips, fruit, vegetables and milk.
With children’s names above each seat, Bus 814 was empty that morning except for three bus drivers and seven coolers filled with meals. The team rolled through the empty streets of Huntington and pulled into a parking lot surrounded by apartments, met right away by a group of smiling grade-schoolers. One of the bus drivers cracked a few jokes with some of the kids.
But behind the scenes, some of the bus drivers confided that, like many others, they have financial worries of their own. The coronavirus has put an end to field trips and special events--side gigs that help many bus drivers make their living. Driver Deborah Wyant said she is thankful to have the job, and happy to be helping feed children, but she wondered how she will get by.
“I'm missing out on $400 to $500 a month. Just because I don't get to do my midday run as long as school’s not in," Wyant said.
These drivers have had to adjust to a new work schedule, too. Instead of their normal routes in the morning and afternoon, they now make several runs throughout the day delivering food across the county. To adjust to these longer hours, the county only makes them work two to three days a week. This way, the county can still have drivers out five days a week delivering meals without overworking any one driver.
Some counties in West Virginia have shifted to delivering a weeks’ worth of meals all in one day. But Cabell County schools' spokesman Jedd Flowers said the Board of Education thinks families find the five-day delivery program to be more accessible.
The program, he said, is only possible because about a dozen county workers have volunteered to assemble the meals.
“It just really depends on if we keep up the volunteer workforce in order to keep making 9,000 meals a day happen," he said.
With social distancing, only about five cooks can be in a kitchen at once, preparing the sandwiches for lunch.
“They’re secretaries who might otherwise be staying home, or they’re other other staff members at the central office," Flowers said. "We've had our assistant superintendents out bagging lunches and delivering them to site and handing them out at sites.”
Flowers said families who cannot make it to the distribution sites will receive meals, too. Social workers and community site coordinators have helped in those situations.
"Many times they take meals right to the kids’ houses," he said. "Some of the teachers do it as well."