ST. GEORGE — Since the initiation of remote instruction, Washington and Iron County school districts are preparing and delivering more than 20,000 meals a day to students in need. As this shift was abrupt, there are still some kinks to work out, like making sure students and parents are practicing social distancing at the pickup sites.
Meals in both counties are being provided to anyone aged 0-18 — no questions asked.
Traci Francisco, the food service manager at Canyon View High and Canyon View Middle schools, told St. George News when she first heard about the schools closing, she and others worried about how some of the students were going to be fed.
“We know that with some people, these are the only meals that they’re getting,” she said. “So, if we’re not able to be there to provide that for them, how will they eat?”
At Canyon View High School, Francisco said they’ve seen an increase in meals around two and a half times what they would normally serve before the dismissal. She said the high school is preparing some 935 meals a day, which, on a normal day, would be 410. The middle school is delivering around 800.
“We have teachers that are helping us. We have secretaries. We have custodians. We have aids that have all just stepped up and helped us to make this work because they realize we cannot prepare and send off that many meals a day,” Francisco said. “We really couldn’t do it without them.”
On a normal day at the high school, kids have the opportunity to walk across the street and grab a meal. Many of the students these schools are delivering meals to live in rural areas, which could be a reason why they’ve seen an increase in numbers, Francisco said.
Whatever the reason, she said, “we’re just so happy to be able to provide.”
Francisco said that the students showed appreciation even before the current circumstances.
“A lot of them are in need, and they’re just so grateful for a meal,” she said.
On a normal school day in Washington County, around 13,000 school lunches would be served to students, which is relatively equal to the numbers now, District Communications Director Steven Dunham said.
Similar to Canyon View, the food service staff has the assistance of bus drivers and paraprofessionals to help with prepping, bagging and delivering. The meals provided are the same kind they would be serving in their cafeteria.
“Today it was hot dogs, tomorrow it’s soft flour tacos. Chicken tenders on Wednesday, teriyaki beef nuggets and mashed potatoes on Thursday, and orange chicken on Friday,” he said.
One of the primary challenges thus far has been with some people not following social distance guidelines at the pickup sites.
“We do need people to social distance at a couple of the sites,” Dunham said. “There are some sites that it’s just not possible to completely do a drive-up service. There are some sites that are intended for students to be able to walk to and pick up.”
In some of these instances, there has been a problem where students are wanting to gather together, and then as they walk up, they’re not practicing social distancing.
Dunham said they are in the process of trying to comply with the guidelines from the health department as well as continue to provide the needed service so they are not in danger of being shut down.
“Because it is needed for our community, this is a necessary service. We have students who will not eat if we cannot provide this,” he said.
Dunham said that pointing out the need to practice social distancing at these sites is not about shaming anyone, it’s about educating the public and keeping people informed so that nothing interrupts the service.
“Our cafeteria workers are amazing, and they are overworked right now. They are providing more lunches than they’d anticipated. They are working their guts out for the community,” he said.
Dunham said they need the help of parents in teaching their children the rules of social distancing to keep in compliance with guidelines and help them to understand that it’s not a time to play with friends.
“We can’t monitor every single location. We’re trying. We’re trying to get better and refine it,” Dunham said.
Another challenge has been zeroing in on the number of lunches needed. Dunham said it’s critical for the public to know there’s a misconception out there that the district wants everybody to get lunch so that the district can get reimbursed and pay its employees.
“No, that’s not the case. Out budget was set a year ago for all our employees through this year,” he said. “We don’t need to give out more meals to get money from the government to be able to pay these workers — that’s not true.”
The district is happy to provide the meals, he said, but this program was designed to help those families most in need. At the same time, they are committed to their goal of not turning away anyone that comes.
Dunham said a few of the site locations are set to change due to the fact that they just aren’t conducive to the delivering process, “whether it’s too many people or we can do it more efficiently at a different location.”
In the first few days, Dunham said, “We have had so many letters and comments on our (Facebook) posts thanking us, thanking our cafeteria workers, recognizing the work that’s being put in by our drivers, by our food service workers, by everybody to help our community.”
There have been some families who homeschool children who have reached out saying they could use some help and asked if they could use the service.
“And we said ‘yes, please do,'” Dunham said. “The whole goal of this service is to help our community, and that’s what it’s about — getting through this together.”
Gary Lollar, 67, told St. George News he started driving a bus for Iron County School District after he retired as a way to give back to the community. Each day for his route, he delivers some 160 breakfasts and 220 lunches, part of the 7,800 meals delivered daily to Iron County students, which is split: 3,000 breakfasts and 4,800 lunches.
“More kids show up at lunch time,” Lollar said with a laugh. “For whatever reason, the kids know when they’re getting cheeseburgers and French fries — there’s more lunches that day than ever.”
Initially, part of the challenge has been in narrowing down how many meals are needed at each stop, but they have since nailed it down to a science. Lollar said they recognize the cars and are able to pre-stage how many meals they are going to pass out.
The meal deliveries are also providing reassurance.
“You have kids that know we’re going to be there now,” he said. “At first they were kind of iffy if we were going to be there, but we’re there the same time every day now. So kids come with bicycles and backpacks and ATVs — it’s just really cool to see.”
Something that surprised Lollar about this experience is in observing how — even in a time of social distancing — the community still finds a way to stand together and help one another out.
“There’s been more than one mom who says ‘Hey, my family needs four lunches, but my next door neighbor can’t get out of the house because she has special needs kids, so could I get three more for her family?’ And, of course, we’re not going to deny that,” he said.
While Lollar is familiar with the kids he serves, as many are the same ones that were on his route before the school dismissals, he said this situation has given him the opportunity to meet the parents.
The father of one girl told him she had told her father to tell Lollar that every night she says a prayer for him and asks that he doesn’t get the coronavirus.
“I told my wife it almost made me cry,” he said.
There has been a learning curve for the district and added directives in order to help parents and children understand the importance of social distancing.
But for Lollar’s sites, he said “The parents are really good about keeping distance. Nobody idles around a stop. They get their lunch and move on. Nobody stays and converses — they know they have to keep their social distance.”
Two of the sites are now set up so that people don’t even need to get out of their cars.
“They come around the corner, and we park the bus right there, and they pull up, roll down the window, tell us how much they need, and we just pass them right through the window,” he said. “It’s kind of like a little drive-through.”
Lollar said before he retired, he used to do a lot of philanthropic work for his company. But handing out meals is by far the most rewarding thing he’s ever done.
“I am getting paid,” he said, “but I’d do it for free.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.