The only sounds in the nearly empty school come from the cafeteria, where women work in an assembly line. They’re packing up Monday’s lunch – a crustless PB&J sandwich, carrots, Cheez-Its, a granola bar and Rice Krispies Treats.
About two months ago, the cafeteria workers would have scooped hot chili or a melty chicken quesadilla onto reusable trays carried by hungry high schoolers. But when Monroe County Community School Corporation closed its public schools to students on March 23, the cafeteria workers stayed to prepare and distribute free breakfast and lunch to local kids ages 18 and younger.
With this program, MCCSC is continuing to ensure its students have enough to eat beyond the lunchroom. It’s one of the ways the public school system is providing its services, such as education and care, throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The cafeteria workers and bus drivers serve breakfast and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Buses meet families in neighborhoods, at schools and public locations such as Winslow Plaza.
They pack twice the amount of food, or about 20 food items, on Monday and Wednesday to last the next day.
They serve about 3,000 kids per distribution day.
Lori Miller, the food service supervisor at Bloomington High School South, knows she’s meeting a need in her community. In Monroe County, 17.6% of children were food insecure in 2017, according to Feeding America Research.
Her work is different now, but she said it’s been a pleasure serving the kids.
“The reason we’re all here is because we love the kids and we love to see them,” Miller said.
Miller was anxious about working during the pandemic when she started March 23. But now, she’s got a good routine down.
She and her coworkers know to tape the lids of leaky fruit cups. They upgraded to plastic bags, which hold more food and stay open better than small paper ones. The supply chain, once stressed by a sudden change in food orders, has adapted to the schools’ needs. The cafeteria workers document leftovers and locations with high demand to better prepare for the next day.
Bloomington resident Abigail Leonard has been grateful for the security the food service provides. After the mother of two was laid off from her job at a local estate clean-out and auction business March 15, the free 20 meals per week stretch her grocery budget a little further.
“It’s nice to know that it’s there, and it’s stable, and it’s helping fill gaps right now, especially when we were kind of unsure of what was going to happen," Leonard said.
It’s an impressive amount of food, she said. Leonard used leftover broccoli florets packed in her kids’ lunches to cook a stir-fry for dinner.
"Even though they're not seeing their students every day, they're still making sure their students are fed,” Leonard said about the cafeteria workers. "I think it's a huge blessing to the community."
Aside from providing a secure source of food, seeing people from their everyday life helps establish a sense of normalcy, even from a 6-foot social distance. Leonard’s 11-year-old son, Zaid, said he looks forward to picking up lunch. The workers recognize Leonard and her kids, and know how many lunches they need. They have made it a special part of their routine.
“They’re seeing people who used to be part of their normal life,” said Hattie Johnson, MCCSC director of nutrition services. “It’s the people they trust.”
The meals are federally funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Child Nutrition Programs. In order to maintain funding, Johnson and her team need to serve required amounts of grains, proteins and produce and document what they serve.
Annie Shattuck, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at IU, said even though there’s an abundance of food in the United States, people often don’t have the money or access to transportation to go to the supermarket and buy it. This decreases demand on the supply chain, and food is wasted because it isn’t bought and has nowhere to go. The grocery store system can effectively prevent hunger, but too many Americans are too broke to spend the money on food or a gallon of gasoline to drive to the store.
"People just don't have the cash to go out and buy the food, which would be the most efficient way of getting it to them," Shattuck said.
Food banks and school lunch programs help close the gap. Families, especially in a time of crisis, are grateful for the help. In Monroe County, 21.4% of people lived in poverty in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The National School Lunch Program, which runs under the USDA Child Nutrition Programs, is one of the most effective anti-poverty lunch programs available in the country, Shattuck said. After a while, 10 free or reduced-price meals per kid a week adds up.
Parents don’t just rely on schools to stretch their grocery budget, but also to care for their children. Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, MCCSC school board member, said the expectation for public schools is to care for the mental, physical and emotional needs of the kids who need it most.
“Our families rely heavily on public schools,” Fuentes-Rohwer said. “Not just to feed and educate their children, but also to care for their children so they can work.”
Johnson and her team work hard to offer free meals. During the first couple weeks, Johnson worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., just to be sure the schools would have food to prepare. Lately, she’s gotten her time back as she and her coworkers have settled into the new routine.
Distance learning ended for MCCSC May 7 and the MCCSC food service will end May 22. However, the Community Kitchens of Monroe County and MCCSC will work together to provide free meals May 26 through June 30.
Fuentes-Rohwer tries not to think about the future. It’s too worrisome, too uncertain. As more and more public dollars are spent on vouchers that end up in private and charter schools, the public schools lose funding necessary to provide free services for everyone.
Johnson and Miller just want to go back to normal, when the kids used to sit in the cafeteria. They want to serve hot food on plastic trays and know the kids are doing all right.
“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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