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It is “no small job” attempting to provide needed meals for schoolchildren in all corners of Wilson County.
“Monumental is the right word,” said Mary Catherine Talton, nutrition director for Wilson County Schools.
Wednesday was the first day Wilson County Schools served free breakfast and lunch to students ages 1-18 at 25 sites around the county.
“This is something that I never expected to have to do in my career,” Talton said. “You just pull together a team of people that are willing to work together, that are willing to do the things that need to be done for the betterment of our students.”
Teacher assistants, central office personnel, child nutrition staff and other school employees pitched in to serve the meals Wednesday.
The school district, like others around the state, began a two-week, state-imposed closure Monday in an attempt to stop the COVID-19 virus from spreading.
“It is amazing to me how everyone is pulling together to make sure that all the children in the communities are being taken care of,” said Amanda Jones, a Vick Elementary third grade teacher assistant who volunteered at Wells Elementary to hand out meals Wednesday.
Natashia McKeel, the cafeteria manager for Wells Elementary, said she and others jumped at the chance to help.
“When our supervisor and director sent out a message asking for volunteers to help get the kids fed while we were in this situation, there was no question. It was automatically, ‘Yes,’” McKeel said.
McKeel said she’s reminded every day that school meals are the only food some students receive.
“So to be able to get these ladies to come to help us, this is overwhelming,” McKeel said. “When they arrived, they just asked, ‘What can we do?’ We just set up an assembly line and started rolling.”
Meals are distributed at the two dozen nutrition sites for students to eat at home.
“We were able to utilize waivers through USDA and North Carolina Department of Instruction to ensure that we can still feed the students in a non-congregate setting so that they do not have to stay and consume their meals to keep everybody safe from the virus that has gotten us out of school,” Talton said. “They can come and grab meals and take them back to wherever they may be staying with a parent or a grandparent.”
The meals are being prepared in seven elementary school and two middle school kitchens. Some 16 other sites were chosen to locate buses that could be used to distribute the food.
Talton met with Robert Harvey, WCS director of transportation, and his team to determine where to locate the buses.
“We were able to look together at all of the routes, and they were able to say where some of those heavier areas were that students were getting on buses and getting off buses, and we were able to work together that we could spread them out enough to make sure we reached every end of the county but also to make sure that we are stopping in places that are most beneficial for our students,” Talton said.
Talton said the menu was slightly changed to accommodate the long distances the food had to travel.
“We are using more items that are easier to pack in bags, more pre-wrapped items or we are utilizing items that we can wrap before placing them in the bags, such as chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, things like that we can wrap before placing them in bags to make them easier to transport and easier to keep warm,” Talton said. “And then we are utilizing things such as apple slices that are prepackaged, juice boxes, things of that nature. For breakfast, we will be utilizing shelf-stable items so that the students can take them today and still have them tomorrow to consume without causing any harm.”
Cooler insulated bags are used at all sites “to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.”
“We are taking it to them,” Talton said. “We are meeting them where they are.”
At Wells Elementary School, cars pulled up Wednesday and children recognized familiar faces among the WCS personnel handing out the meals.
The teachers said they missed the students, and the students said they missed the teachers.
“I enjoy listening to them talk to me,” Jones said. “They come to school dealing with different things and seeing a familiar face that they see every day makes them smile and it makes me smile too.”
“It is allowing us to let them know that there is somebody out here that cares for them who is going to make sure that they are going to get something to eat,” Jones said. “I am not saying that they wouldn’t be getting it if they were at home, but we are here to show them the support and the love that they get every day with all of us at the schools.”
Talton said the children don’t have to be present when parents pick up meals.
Talton estimates that about 3,000 meals were prepared among all the sites.
“That would be a safe guess,” Talton said. “We have prepared to feed every student. If we need to increase tomorrow, we will increase, if we need to decrease, we will decrease.”
Tabitha Hinton stopped by to get meals for four children, three of whom were her grandchildren.
“It is really helping out,” Hinton said. “I love it. It has been helping so the kids could be fed.”
“I just think its great to be a part of something so tremendous with Wilson County Schools to be a part of the teamwork that has come together from Saturday when it was announced that all schools would be closed up until today when we started serving,” Talton said. “It is a whole host of people that make this happen. It’s not just school nutrition. It’s not just central office. It’s not just one school. We are Wilson County Schools and we are here for all of our children here in Wilson County, and we are beyond proud and beyond blessed to be here.”