Children across Cleveland County are getting two nourishing meals a day, five days a week, thanks to the teamwork and cooperation between county agencies and faith and civic organization volunteers.
"As soon as the schools were closed, we realized we needed to find a way to feed the kids who depend on school breakfasts and lunches," says Sandy Hamrick, student services coordinator for Cleveland County Schools (CCS). "The decision to close the schools was made on a Friday, and by the next Monday, meals were already being distributed at 22 area sites."
But leaders quickly realized that not everyone would have a way to get to the schools to pick up the food each day. "Even before the decision was made to close the schools, [CCS Superintendent] Dr. Fisher and I -- along with other community partners -- had already been discussing about how we could make food available to those who needed it," says Josh Propst, director of the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland County (BGCCC). "We offered our vans and staff and told Dr. Fisher that we wanted to be a part of any plan to help the kids in our community."
An emergency meeting was held and plans coordinated. First, the Communities in Schools (CIS) staff, along with school social workers would help determine who needed to have food delivered to their homes. Using this list, the organizers then used records from the CCS transportation department to determine the most efficient way to deliver the meals.
"We realized pretty quickly that we needed to think these things through," says Hamrick. "For instance, we might have a first grader who needs a meal, but then there might also be a middle school student and a high school student living in the same household. We didn't need to make three trips to the same house. By using the addresses provided by the transportation department, we were able to determine the cafeteria site closest to each family's address, and then send the meals from that location."
Food services workers at each of the schools quickly jumped to action to prepare and package one breakfast and one lunch for each child in a household. Currently the group is providing 5,000 lunches and 5,000 breakfasts each day for a total of 50,000 meals per week. Meals are made available to all children in the household ages 2-17.
"The food services personnel have just been amazing," says Hamrick. "They worked even through what was supposed to have been spring break so that these kids wouldn't go hungry. They even decorated some of the bags so the kids could get encouraging messages along with their food."
Once the food was prepared and the delivery routes had been determined, the BGCCC and CCS worked together to make sure the meals were packed and transported within a 30-minute window to ensure freshness and safety.
"We assigned two people to each van, one to drive and the other to unload the meals," says Propst. "We are very careful to use all safety protocols - including wearing masks and sanitizing the van between routes."
Volunteers for the routes came from the BGCCC, CIS, as well as a host of civic and religious organizations.
"I would love to list all of the participating groups, but I am just afraid I would leave someone out," says Hamrick. "This really has been a community-wide effort. We are so lucky in Cleveland County that we have this amazing network of people who came together to make sure this happened so quickly."