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Meals On Wheels: Schools Get Creative To Keep Kids Fed During Pandemic

Monday morning was supposed to be back to school for the 30,000 kids living in Santa Rosa County. As schools are closed through April 15 during the coronavirus pandemic, the school district and parents are trying to find ways to not only educate kids, but keep them fed. 

Outside Holley-Navarre Primary school, lunchroom workers and bus drivers were ready with 400 prepared breakfasts and lunches for children 18 and younger as part of the Summer BreakSpot program. Before the pick-up officially opened at 9:30 a.m. there were already about a dozen cars in line. 

“This is very nice for one thing because it frees up time for parents,” said Dawn Ohmit who walked over to the school with her four kids. “It’s a benefit to us all to just come by and pick up versus going to a store, touching a shopping cart and worrying about what you’re bringing home.” 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Judith Franco, a lunchroom worker for Santa Rosa County School District, helps get meals prepared for pickup.

For some students, it was a little piece of normalcy to see familiar faces. Lucas Harris, a 12-year-old, special-needs student, was delighted to see his regular bus driver as she handed over one breakfast and one lunch. 

“This has just been amazing,” said his mother, Yari Esther, before driving away. “It brings a lot of relief, especially at times like this. I’m speechless.” 

As schools were announcing closures, state and local organizations have stepped in to help fill gaps. The Summer BreakSpot program, which typically runs when school is out for summer, will help provide meals while schools in Florida are closed during the pandemic. Parents can find the nearest site at summerbreakspot.freshfromflorida.com or by texting FLKIDSMEALS to 211-211. 

FoodRaising Friends, was also at Holley-Navarre Primary, and all Summer BreakSpot stops in Santa Rosa County, with bags holding a week’s worth of food for families. Becca McKeithen, founder of FoodRaising Friends, said the nonprofit distributed 515 bags and they plan to be bringing more for the next two Mondays, at least.

“This pandemic can throw a typically OK family into a crisis,” said McKeithen. “The bags aren’t just for kids, but for parents so that the whole family can be fed.” 

Monday’s menu consisted of cereal, juice and fruit for breakfast with a popcorn chicken meal for lunch. One of the Santa Rosa County School District’s lunchroom workers, Sandra Glaze, said she was pleased to see that kids would be getting nutritious meals during uncertain times. She’s been pulling extra shifts at Winn-Dixie and sees the demand firsthand. 

“I think this is wonderful,” she said while arranging lunch meals. “Everybody steps forward — we’re all in this together.” 

And for families who couldn’t make it to the pickup spot, a few bus drivers were making rounds in the north and south ends to deliver meals. 

“We’re never done anything like this before,” said Julie Dore while driving around her regular route in Midway.  

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Bus driver Irene Garrett hand delivers meals to children in Navarre. Bus drivers made stops around the south-end of the county to serve families that couldn't make it to food pickup.

Standing beside the driver’s side, Irene Garrett, who is also a bus driver, made announcements on the bus PA system. Two cafeteria workers and another bus driver kept an eye out from the back of the bus. 

“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she said with a laugh while announcing that free meals were available to kids. Yes, it felt a little strange, she said, but hopefully word of mouth will get out in the coming days and weeks. 

Families were more than grateful for the extra effort. One mom expressed she was afraid of missing the meals because she didn’t have a car. Some kids waved eagerly at the yellow school bus. After an hour and a half, they delivered 57 meals. 

Delivering meals door to door is more labor-intensive than picking kids up at a bus stop, but Dore and other bus drivers and lunchroom staff said they were grateful to still have work to do with schools closed. 

And they were grateful to see “their kids.”

“I would do this for free,” Dore said. 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.