All schools across Indiana are now closed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. This means many students are without meals they rely on. Indianapolis' Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township has come up with a unique solution to feed children.
Earlier this week, Superintendent Jeff Butts stands outside Rhoades Elementary on the city’s west side, as cafeteria workers load coolers of food onto a yellow school bus. The staff are wearing goofy St. Patrick’s Day glasses and laughing as they push a dolly full of the chilled food.
Butts says the district prioritized getting packaged meals directly to students, during this first week of school closures due to the coronavirus.
“Our transportation department literally, in three days, completely rerouted our entire district so that we can serve pre-K through 12 and created 1,000, over 1,000, new stops,” he says. “And then we publish those to our website for parents. So that students pre-K through 12 know where the bus is going to stop.”
More than 100 district staffers are involved on making the bus stop meals possible.
Traditionally, school districts in Indianapolis offer free meals in the summer and during some breaks, at static locations, like school buildings. In this week of forced school closure, some Marion County districts also offer meals at apartment complexes and the YMCA. But Butts says getting to a location isn’t easy for all Wayne Township families, so while they have the already scheduled staff, the bus comes to them.
“It stops the same place each and every day. It's off of the busy routes, so that we can stop it on our flashers and stay there for five to 10 minutes so that families can come up and get their meals,” he says.” It is the same time every day. They know what to expect.”
Families can use a district web site to find the nearest stop a bus will make.
One of the busses delivering food on Tuesday is No. 5 -- driven by Rose Robinson.
Robinson, a driver for nine years, says she’s grown attached to many of the students. She knows where they live, their parents and their siblings. She’s seen them grow up.
“See them in kindergarten and have them going into fifth or sixth grade. I just want to make sure my kids get what they need,” she says.
Of the 16,000 students who attend Wayne Township schools, 70 percent qualify for free and reduced meals, that’s nearly 12,000 children.
The district set up “grab and go” meal pick-ups at nine schools. Thousands of meals will be distributed that way. District child nutrition director Sara Gasiorowski says, this week, the busses are providing an additional 3,000, cold, prepackaged breakfasts and lunches.
Everything is cold because we need to transport it and keep it temperature safe for food safety. So we're not doing anything hot or anything like that,” Gasiorowski says. “Using shelf-stable fruit cups, raisins, a lot of fresh fruit, whole pieces of fruit, you know -- prepackaged carrots, apples. Just making sure that they have variety, and we are meeting the guidelines.”
Earlier in the week, bus driver Robinson stopped at a house where students live to make sure the family of six knew about the meals. A day later, they are waiting outside.
Robinson hands the meals to Odaols Garcia, a senior at Ben Davis High School.
“Did any of you guys need your homework packets or did you get them?” Robinson asks, “I have some on the bus.”
Garcia takes the work packets for her siblings, including a young brother who followed her outside. Garcia says her mom, who stands nearby, is scared to go to the store now.
“There are a lot of shortages of food when we do go out. So this has really helped her,” Garcica says of the food drop offs. “And he gets excited whenever he sees the school bus because he does miss going to school. Waking up for that routine. It’s really helped us a lot.”
Garcia says the uncertainty of how long the schools will be closed is weighing on her. This is not how she dreamed her senior year would unfold.
“It’s been really stressful because I expected to be going through my regular school year. Now I am worried about graduation. Like how is that going to go through? And the prom and everything. It is really…,” she trails off. “That’s on my mind right now. Yeah. Since I am working too, they’ve told me not to go in. It’s been a struggle.”
Bus driver Rose Robinson tells the family she’ll be back the next day.
As the bus continues to make stops, more families come out. Some rush to grab the meals in plastic bags. One woman gives Robinson a hug.
Later, Donahue Mullins, a father of a seventh grader, comes out of his house to take a few meals.
“I’m glad that they did. I’m glad they got the kids doing their homework and instead of just letting them slack off. I am glad they are bringing them something. It’s actually helping,” he says. “I got two kids and, in fact, one of them is not in school and they gave her something too. It’s kinda nice.”
“Hopefully they will provide some other way for the adults to get some food too. But that’s just my opinion.”
After another student runs out to the bus and gets a meal, Robinson gets back in. She has about 20 more stops to make.
“Well, we are going to move on to the next,” Robinsn says before closing the bus door.
Wayne Township will end all food service after Friday, the scheduled start of a two week spring break -- when meals and staff were not regularly scheduled. District leaders say they expect schools will remain closed past the end of break, April 5, as many try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
If the school stays closed, Superintendent Butts says they’ll be ready to send meals out on the busses.
This is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. However, we recommend checking the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Indiana State Department of Health for the most recent numbers of COVID-19 cases.