A mostly empty school bus rolled slowly over lumpy, ice-rutted roads in a South Anchorage mobile home park Tuesday to reach the neighborhood’s kids, even though schools remain closed.
The bus was on one of six routes the Anchorage School District established for delivery of breakfast and lunch to families who need them during the coronavirus outbreak.
Once the bus was parked, two food service managers, Rosa Edwards of Service High School and Grace Bellerive of West High, unboxed and organized brown bags. Driver Leonard Collins, who wore a red short-sleeved T-shirt that said “Not Today, Satan,” set up and sanitized a folding table in the road.
Minutes later, parents and students walked or drove to the site, followed physical distancing instructions and waited to pick up the food to carry back home. Workers say many of them express gratitude each day.
“These guys do a great job,” said John Smith, who was first in line to pick up meals for his five children.
The school bus routes are part of the district’s larger effort to provide meals during the COVID-19 shutdown. Twenty-six schools have also become pickup locations. The schools and the bus routes were chosen to serve areas that have greater economic need, according to Andy Mergens, Anchorage School District senior director of student nutrition.
Mergens said demand has grown steadily since meal pickups began March 16. Bus service began days later. The district is now serving about a quarter of the 27,000 meals per day that it would serve if the district’s 83 meal-serving schools were open.
“As word starts to spread, more and more people come,” Mergens said.
Mergens said it has been a logistical challenge to resume meal service. Some staff members remain isolated because they traveled during spring break or have child care challenges that keep them home, he said. It’s unlikely that the district will add more routes or pickup locations, but it does have the ability to increase the number of meals it prepares each day at the Student Nutrition Center, he said.
The district gives out one breakfast and one lunch per student per day. On Fridays, workers give out three breakfasts and three lunches per student to help feed them through the weekend. Meals on the weekends, not something the district would normally serve, is a response to the stay-home orders and the sudden increase in unemployment, Mergens said.
“It’s the nature of the emergency,” he said.
The six buses began the day backed into the loading dock at the Student Nutrition Center, where several workers quickly loaded each with boxes and coolers. Packed meals Tuesday included hot dogs and beans for lunch and cold cereal for breakfast.
Collins, who drove the 11-stop route inside the Dimond Estates Mobile Home Park, is normally a driving instructor for Reliant Transportation. He said he was happy to be a part of the effort to serve kids whose households may be struggling.
“I was one of those kids, so I know that they need this,” Collins said.
More information on food service during the closure can be found on the Anchorage School District website.