INSPIRED. Not All Super Heroes Wear Capes - Part 1. Providing Nutritious Meals for Children
Not all superheroes wear capes. In Lee County, a lot of them right now are wearing masks and gloves.
Those heroes, who since the closure of schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic have served breakfast and lunch to thousands of students three days per week, consist of staffers from the school system, ranging from maintenance workers and bus drivers to cafeteria staff, social workers and more.
“The common phrase 'it takes a village' cannot be truer than what Lee County Schools has been doing since the issuance of the stay at home orders,” said Amanda Cagle, the district's child nutrition director. “After multiple meetings with department heads and senior staff, Lee County Schools launched an entire school system approach that involved more than just cafeteria staff. Careful thought and consideration were taken on site locations and the safety of school employees and families.”
Chris McNeill, the district's maintenance director, said the undertaking begins in the cafeterias at SanLee Middle School, W.B. Wicker Elementary and East Lee Middle School early in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where thousands of meals are prepared. From there, the meals – both breakfast and lunch - go out to Warren Williams Elementary, Bragg Street Academy, Broadway Elementary, Greenwood Elementary and J. Glenn Edwards Elementary, where they're distributed for free to parents and other caretakers for children under the age of 18. Additionally, there are community bus stops throughout the county, where children are able to walk to the stop and pick up meals themselves if needed.
“That's where they really get to see the kids being happy,” McNeill said. “In other spots it's mostly the parents, but these community stop drivers get to see the kids happy to see them, laughing, asking what's for lunch today. That's when you really see that we're doing the right thing by feeding people.”
Cagle concurred, saying she'd had the opportunity to go along on one of the community bus stops and see the reactions herself.
Child nutrition employees wheeling packed lunches out to be delivered.
“The excitement in their eyes to have something as familiar as a typical pizza Friday school lunch will forever be in my heart and is the reason I get up each day and come back to the challenges this pandemic presents,” she said.
Cagle said the meals – more than 73,000 to date – are prepared by just 24 employees.
“It is not an easy undertaking even for our most experienced staff members, but it's a labor of love for many,” she said. “As the child nutrition director, I cannot thank them enough for their hard work and dedication. I am beyond honored to lead them through uncharted territory as we face new challenges each day.”
Lee County Schools employees safely handing out meals behind plexi glass barriers, with masks and shields on.
Nina Thomas is one of those experienced staff members. In typical times, she's the cafeteria manager at Broadway Elementary. Now, she reports to the cafeteria at SanLee Middle three times per week to help put together meals for the entire county.
“We go in at 6, and we have to get our temperature checked, we put our hair nets on,” she said. “Then we get the food out and start preparing it. It's a lot, a lot of food, and we really, really work hard. But I'm proud to be a part of it.”
Thomas said the biggest change is not being able to see the students.
“We don't get to see the kids, and that's really sad,” she said. “I worry about the ones that need that extra love or that extra hug.”
Thomas said she understands the worry about coronavirus in the current climate, but that she feels it's important to be able to give back.
“At first, my husband didn't want me to go in, but it just means a lot to me to be a part of this because I'm giving back to the community,” she said. “It's for all the kids, all the people who are hungry. It just makes me happy to do this.”
Our food distributors also hand out other items when needs are identified, such as laptops and school supplies. Pictured here are Easter baskets that were also distributed one of the days the Child Nutrition Hubs and Lunch Boxes on Wheels were open.
Valerie Davenport is a social worker assigned to Broadway Elementary, Deep River Elementary and J. Glenn Edwards Elementary. She said deliveries fluctuate because family situations change, but that the district is doing its best to connect with every family in need – and not just with food.
“It's hard because we know we can't deliver to everyone, but we've done our best to deliver to as many possible,” she said. “We've also tried to look at other needs – if a child needs a laptop, or isn't able to get to school to pick up paper-and-pencil-type things, we've been able to deliver those things.”
Davenport said that those deliveries have been the best part of all this.
“It's so great to be able to actually see them in person, just to be able to say 'how are you? How are things?'” she said. “We practice extreme safety measures, but to see their faces and know they're still in their home and they're okay – it's very satisfying and it means a lot. It's the happiest part of my job because you're bringing them something they're excited about. And the food is helpful, of course, but it's also about seeing a face, someone from their school and knowing that we care about them.”
For McNeill, the pandemic has presented challenges – there are constantly new ways to protect the staff and people coming to pick up meals, like installing drive thru windows at food hubs and a partnership between local company Mertek with the high schools’ Academy of Engineering instructors on face shields – but also great rewards in seeing the pride staffers take in their often dangerous work.
“All the people working are in a good mood and happy to be there,” he said. “They're risking their health by being out there. And it can be an 85-degree day and they're out there sweating or it can be cold and pouring rain, and we've had no complaints. These people are a real asset to our district and our community.”
Cagle said the timing of the pandemic and the food distribution program is unique, because School Lunch Hero Day is typically observed nationally on May 1.
“This May 1, our celebration with our child nutrition staff will not be the same. It is more important than ever that we recognize that school meals are vital to the heartbeat of our community and that a cafeteria employee’s job is not an easy task,” she said. “This will be a day to remember, a day when we should recognize everyone that leaves the safe confines of their home to come assist in the food preparation and delivery to the children of Lee County.”
Inspired is a digital digest published each week during the academic year by Lee County Schools to highlight accomplishments of students, faculty and staff.