arts   |   coronavirus

Monroe County Schools food service workers serve thousands of meals to local kids



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A child picks up a sack lunch March 16 in Huntington, West Virginia. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Monroe County Community School Corporation cafeteria workers and bus drivers distribute free meals to Monroe County kids 18 and younger. Tribune News Service

The food service workers of the Monroe County Community School Corporation know how to package the familiar flavors of the lunchroom into a bag for kids to take home, making food accessible amid a pandemic. 

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, cafeteria workers and bus drivers distribute free meals to Monroe County kids 18 and younger. Two weeks ago, they distributed about 20,000 meals at local public schools, bus stops and locations such as Winslow Plaza. 

Across the county, they serve breakfast and lunch to about 2,000 kids each distribution day. Friday, the food service workers at Bloomington High School South prepared to serve about 230 kids. Lori Miller, the food service supervisor at South, said even though her work is different now, she feels like it makes a difference.

“The reason we’re all here is because we love the kids and we love to see them,” Miller said.

Since they don’t distribute meals on Tuesday and Thursday, the cafeteria workers pack twice as many breakfasts and lunches on Monday and Wednesday to last the following days. A typical Monday or Wednesday bag has four meals, or about 16 food items and four cartons of milk.

Hattie Johnson, the director of nutrition services for the Monroe County Community School Corporation, sources products for the schools to order. She’s known for sneaking extra treats such as cookies into the bags of food. 

She said feeding kids cafeteria lunches in the middle of a pandemic helps to establish a sense of normalcy. 

“They’re seeing people who used to be part of their normal life,” Johnson said. “It’s the people they trust.”

In the beginning, it was hard for Johnson and her coworkers to adjust. Normally, there are about 120 cafeteria workers at MCCSC, but about 90 initially felt comfortable and healthy enough to come and work in the cafeteria during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of serving hot food directly onto a tray, they now package unheated items into microwaveable containers and make sure the lids stay tight. 

They also started using plastic bags instead of small paper bags, which hold more food and are easier to hand off when they distribute the meals from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

“It’s a learning curve, but we know those things now, so it’s not so bad,” Johnson said. “But it’s still a lot.”

Johnson said the MCCSC employees who help prepare, package and distribute food are not required to work during the pandemic and will not lose their job when it is over. 

Miller said she knows the pandemic has put a strain on families, and by serving free breakfast and lunch, she can help her community. Miller calls the lunch ladies her “girls.”

“I feel like I’m a leader, and I need to lead by example,” Miller said. 

Johnson receives funding for the free food service through the state. To maintain funding, the food service workers need to keep records to prove they serve enough grains, proteins and fresh produce. They also record how many meals are picked up at different locations in Monroe County to better prepare for future distribution days.  

Extra food is taken home by employees or donated to Wheeler Mission. On Friday, Miller had six bags of food left, which was encouraging to her. She said it shows the schools are meeting people’s needs.

Even though the kids can’t see the calculated food orders or the thorough sanitizing of the cafeteria, they can still see their favorite lunch ladies and bus drivers at their closest bus stop or school building. From six feet apart, they can smile at each other and feel a hint of their normal life.

“We’re going to hang in there because our kids need to be fed,” Johnson said. “And not before long, our normal will be back.”

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