As the hallways of Grant Union Junior-Senior High School and Humbolt Elementary remain eerily quiet, bus drivers, education assistants and cooks have been reporting to work every day to prepare and deliver nearly 2,000 meals five days a week since the statewide closure of schools to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
On a Thursday morning, the lunch counter was lined with brown bags instead of lunch trays as cafeteria staff filled them with carrot sticks and pulled pork burritos while Grant Union head cook Natalie Weaver labeled the last two “vegetarian” for two kids on the Seneca route and double-checked the sack lunches before staff carted the lunches in plastic totes to their vehicles.
When Gov. Kate Brown closed schools in early March, Grant School District officials scrambled not only to get assignments out to students, but meal plans and delivery routes as well.
By mid-March, the district began offering grab-and-go meals at Humbolt Elementary. In addition, Kim Brown delivers to the Mt. Vernon park and the Seventh Street Complex. Lorrie Stinnett delivers to Seneca, and Tammy Larkin delivers to the former bowling alley parking lot.
Grant Union Principal Ryan Gerry said, before COVID-19, the district only served meals four days a week, but they decided to change to five days a week amid the pandemic.
Gerry praised the hard work of the cafeteria and delivery staff.
“The cafeteria staff have done an absolutely awesome job during this time of closure in getting meals to the kids in our community,” he said.
Weaver said the kids need routine and structure in their lives, and two months ago that was stripped away from them.
“Where nothing is normal right now for these kids — they have no normal schedule, no normal routine in their day — this gives them that little bit of a schedule every day,” Weaver said.
Shanna Wright, the head cook at Humbolt who works as a delivery driver as well, said the kids have written thank you cards, brought flowers and brought gifts when she has dropped meals off to them.
While only one person has tested positive for COVID-19 in Grant County, the secondary human cost could be staggering. Survey results from The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research group, found that nearly 23% of households said they lacked money to get enough food, compared with about 16% at the height of the Great Recession. Households with children are in even worse shape. Roughly 35% said they did not have enough food, up from 21% during the last recession.
Hunger in children can inflict long-lasting cognitive damage and inhibit learning and long-term educational attainment, according to research from the American Psychological Association. Malnutrition, according to the study, is also associated with physical illnesses and other chronic conditions, like asthma, iron-deficiency anemia and low bone density.
An education assistant with the school district said the meals students get at school might be the only food they get all day.
Education assistant Tammy Larkin, who delivers to the bowling alley twice a day, said, while she does not see the students she typically worked with directly, she gets to see familiar faces she was used to seeing around campus before COVID-19.
“It is nice to kind of just check in on them and see how they’re doing,” she said.