Even though school is out, you may hear a big yellow Wayne County School bus honking outside your home no matter what corner of the county you reside. Nutrition service workers and bus drivers have become unsung heroes to almost a thousand children benefiting from a hot school lunch and shelf-safe breakfast for the next morning. Young people are being fed either along newly established routes or through a pick-up service at Wayne County Middle School.
The pick-up service has been increasing each day since it was quickly launched on March 16th. Nutrition Services Director Kathryn Tucker immediately responded to the crisis designing a temporary food service program for ages 18 and younger, while meeting all of the government guidelines. With almost 70 percent of Wayne County students meeting the guidelines for free or reduced meals, she knew she had to act fast to meet their nutritional needs. Just a few days later on March 19th, the transportation department had mapped out routes for meals to be transported by school buses to homes, based on called in requests. Each day more and more stops have been added.
“Turning around our entire program in less than a week has been a miracle, in itself,” said Tucker.
There have been stories to tell as the routes stretch all the way to Sunnybrook, out to the McCreary County Line and towards Bronston. With all the rainy weather, one bus wheel was briefly stuck in the mud until another school employee directed him out, but become covered in mud in the process. Another tale involved the nutrition director suffering a little motion sickness as she worked inside the make-shift kitchen inside the bus along a curvy rural route. Of course, there were no complaints from the crew because they are taking such pride feeding the children.
“It’s an amazing thing to see,” said Wayne County Schools Transportation Director Don Neal as he oversaw the line-up of buses outside the middle school around 10:00 a.m. as employees horridly pushed food carts to load in the buses. “We started out with four drivers and now we are up to nine. The demand has increased every day.”
“The first couple of days it was somewhat experimental running our routes, but now it is running smooth as silk,” noted Neal.
Wayne County Bus Drivers like Alberta Bell (who happens to drive a preschool route normally) is being rewarded each day by the smiles on the children’s’ faces. “I’m happy to see them. They’re so excited. You should see them looking in their bags to see what’s inside.”
“I want them to get the food they get at school each day,” said Bell. “Sometimes there is a big difference between the two meals they get at school and what they get at home. I don’t want anybody to go hungry,” said Bell.
Lisa Kammer, the Lunchroom Manager at Wayne County Middle School, is another unsung hero. She has managed to turn on a dime, by having normally fed three grades of middle school students and staff, to serving all aged youths through a pickup distribution center, while also packing tons of coolers headed out to the routes. “It has been a learning process,” said Kammer, as she rushed to the next task at hand.
Not only are she and her cooks fixing meals for Wayne County students and siblings, but representatives from Head Start and Adanta Behavioral Health Services are also depending on them. They come to the side kitchen door and pick up meals each day of operation for their students and clients.
The entire team of school food service workers and transportation employees has taken this on as their mission. You can tell by the eagerness and willingness to serve in their voices, that this may be their finest hours of work. They mirror the rest of the school district staff’s love for children, whether they are in the classrooms or contributing to the overall operation of the district, which always puts students first.
A large portion of the cooks chose to stay at school and feed the children when given the choice. “They said they were here for the kids, even if it got to the point that they were volunteers. They were willing to put themselves at risk,” said Tucker. “They are in it for the right reasons.”
She said they have all shed a tear or two through this process, but she was particularly touched when she was riding a bus on one of the routes that had traveled miles and miles across the county along curvy back roads and finally made it back to a straight stretch on Hwy 90. From the back of the bus, she could hear the bus drivers talking to each other on the radio, realizing a child had been missed on one of the back roads. In spite of the inconvenience, they were eager to double back and take them their meal.
On Wednesday, March 25th, Bus Driver Mike Cooksey was at the wheel, while Food Service District Supervisor/Menu Planner Casey Holt was on board sorting through the boxes filled with colorfully bagged school meals. Not only was she checking the hot lunches in the cooler making sure it was the correct temperature midway through the route, but she was making sure the paperwork on the clipboard was on the mark too, since her department must keep accurate records of the meals being distributed. The current emergency operation has fallen under the Summer Food Service Program that has been a needed and familiar service to Wayne County children for many years.
“We’re serving about a thousand children each day, so today we will distribute about 2,000 meals that include breakfast and lunch,” noted Holt.
“She works while I drive,” said Driver Cooksey, who operates the second biggest route, which is one of three in-town routes. “We need some ice cream truck music to attract the kids,” laughed Cooksey as he drove the bus over bumpy streets and some gravel driveways, making sure he did not miss a stop along the route.
Cooksey expertly pulled the bus around realizing ahead of time, “It might be a little inconvenience for me, but I want to do that so they don’t have to cross the street.”
“We’ve had a grandmother that had a heart attack last night and the children are with a babysitter on Daugherty Street. We’ve got them covered,” said Cooksey assuredly.
“We’ll get to them,” replied Holt from the back of the bus where the coolers and meals had been loaded through the back emergency doors, noting she had plenty of meals packed to go around for everyone.
Children were appreciative at the different stops, as they patiently waited for Ms. Casey to hand the meals out to them. It was not uncommon for Holt to run up to a house and knock on the door, if the bus horn did not get their attention. A fourth grader said he had already finished his weekly NTI package and it was only Wednesday, as he picked up his lunch.
Another unsung hero, Walker Early Learning Center Kindergarten Teacher Jill Allen was on board the bus, assisting with the paperwork. She had been having trouble communicating with one of her students over the phone due to a language barrier. She was concerned he could not complete the Monarch Butterfly assignment which involved a drawing, a story to read and answering eight pages of questions for the week’s NTI assignments. So, she came to school and hopped on bus 235 to have some face to face interaction with him. He was surprised to see his teacher on his front porch handing him a Cat in the Hat book and the packet of instructions from school.
“I call him dancing Kevin. He has the cutest little giggle, but it is always at the wrong time, during class,” said Allen. She was definitely going the extra mile for her student and it was obvious to see how this kindergartner had stolen her heart.
One caregiver that had come to the door said the three children at her house were so happy to receive the meals. She pointed to one little boy saying he was usually a picky eater, but said, “You would think it was Christmas” when he digs into the school lunch bag.
Typical lunches transported have included nachos, meatball subs, chicken sandwiches, or cheeseburgers with sides like chips, apples, and milk along with a shelf safe breakfast of perhaps cereal, packaged cinnamon rolls or doughnut rings with juice and milk along the routes. The pick-up center has provided hot lunches like spiral ham/mashed potatoes/peas to chicken rice bowls/corn/apple. Weekend backpacks filled with non-perishable food, normally distributed at school on Fridays, have also been handed out on the bus routes.
During the current spring break (March 30-April 3); the program has been amended with only the pick-up center at the middle school being in operation. After spring break, beginning April 6th, a Plan C will likely kick in where the routes resume, however the buses will probably only be coming once a week, but providing five-days’ worth of lunches and breakfasts. The cooks are currently cooking in batches trying to get ahead by making things like macaroni and cheese and spaghetti that they can then package individually and distribute as frozen meals that can be heated and served at home. Even though every precaution is taken including social distancing,this will cut down on the possible exposure to the virus for both the school employees and those receiving food.
Information sheets on food safety tips have already gone home with the meals regarding refrigeration and freezing items.
Buses lined up as staff quickly loads food into back emergency exit doors of buses.
Cook Ralph Reynolds carried out a box of food to load on buses
Custodian Kenny Albertson and cafeteria employee Cassie Lester taking supplies to load on buses
Driver Donald Kennedy discussed his route with Transportation Director Don Neal
Cook Mark McCutchen ready to hand out meals along a route
Nutrition Supervisor Casey Holt organizes meals while on board route
Driver Mike Cooksey checks out stops along his route schedule that are added to each day