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First came the meal pick-up service. Then came the mobile food pantry. Around the same time came the meal deliveries.
Forsyth County Schools has been learning how to mobilize resources to keep its students fed during the COVID-19 pandemic on the fly.
“We’ve never been set up to do what’s going on now in our county,” said Valerie Bowers, director of food and nutrition with the school district.
As orders came down from state officials about school closures, Bowers and her department had to devise a plan to provide food assistance for students and their families.
The method of doing that wasn’t the hardest part. They used fairly traditional strategies. They started with the free meal pick-up service on weekdays where students received lunch and breakfast for the next day. They collaborated with The Place of Forsyth County, a local nonprofit organization, to establish mobile food pantries to provide shelf-stable groceries. Lastly, they organized meal deliveries, sending buses out into targeted areas where 50% or more of residents are eligible for meal benefits, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
The biggest question mark for Bowers was the manpower: would the district’s school nutrition staff volunteer despite health and state officials recommending they stay home?
In addition, there were strict requirements to volunteer: they had to be healthy, couldn’t have an underlying health condition and couldn’t live with someone that was immunocompromised.
Bowers found no shortage of help.
“We’re working with incredible rock stars,” Bowers said.
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Bowers made sure volunteers worked within social distancing guidelines. No more than 10 volunteers were allowed in kitchens at one time, and volunteers maintained six feet of distance as much as possible while preparing meals. The school district also provided volunteers with disinfectants and personal protective equipment.
Volunteers had varying degrees of comfort with the operation.
“That’s honestly been a very hard part of the whole thing,” Bowers said. “You’re basically asking people to go out into the community and possibly put themselves at risk.”
She added, “We do have some folks who say, ‘I’ll come in and make as many meals as you need me to make, but I’m not going to hand them out.’ Then we have a couple of folks that are like, ‘I’m OK, I’m healthy, I don’t have anybody else at home.’ They feel like they’ve taken all the precautions that they need to.”
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Bowers herself worked behind the scenes to coordinate the operation. She coordinated bus routes with the school district’s transportation department, kept up with the latest information from the Georgia Department of Education regarding safety precautions and applied for waivers with the USDA to expand and streamline processes.
It’s been a whirlwind experience, one Bowers expects will inform how the district’s food and nutrition department can best serve the community even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
But her staff keeps the operation going and students around Forsyth County fed.
“They’re all really, really positive folks,” Bowers said. “They’re happy to be out there. They’re happy to be doing what they possibly can.”