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Atlanta school system first to request Georgia National Guard help

Atlanta Public Schools, with assistance from the Georgia National Guard, prepares to distribute meals to students and families on Monday, April 13, 2020. On the day after spring break, the district switched from a daily food distribution schedule to a weekly schedule to assist those affected by the coronavirus shutdown. SUBMITTED PHOTO FROM ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT MERIA CARSTARPHEN
Atlanta Public Schools, with assistance from the Georgia National Guard, prepares to distribute meals to students and families on Monday, April 13, 2020. On the day after spring break, the district switched from a daily food distribution schedule to a weekly schedule to assist those affected by the coronavirus shutdown. SUBMITTED PHOTO FROM ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT MERIA CARSTARPHEN

About 50 members of the Georgia National Guard are assisting Atlanta Public Schools with its new weekly food distribution program, an extraordinary measure that officials said provides needed muscle and logistical expertise.

The district is the only school system in Georgia that has requested assistance from the Guard.

Atlanta students and teachers returned from spring break to resume at-home learning on Monday, marking the start of the fourth instructional week since school buildings closed in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This week also launched the district’s shift to a new food distribution schedule.

For several weeks, APS provided free breakfast and lunch to students five days a week at 10 distribution sites and along bus routes. But beginning this week, the district shifted to a once-a-week program.

The change is intended to improve efficiency and reduce how much workers and families are potentially exposed to the virus.

On Monday, about 400 APS employees, guardsmen, and a few deputies from the Fulton County Sheriff's Office gave out bags full of five days worth of breakfast and lunch meals. All told, the district and food organizations it has partnered with distributed about 160,000 meals in one day.

That’s more than double the 70,312 meals APS distributed during the first week of the meal program back in mid-March.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said she asked for military help because the food program is a physically demanding and complicated large-scale operation. As the weather gets warmer and the bags get heavier with a week’s supply of food, the job gets harder.

“You try carrying two crates of milk and what felt like a 30-pound bag of food in the sun and heat,” Carstarphen said. “You are doing some heavy labor.”

Warmer days mean workers have to move quickly to make sure perishables stay cold. As the temperatures climbed and the closures dragged on, Carstarphen said more problems also developed.

Families had been required to show up daily to collect the meals, a challenging schedule for working parents. Plus, it was tricky to maintain social distancing at busy bus stops and distribution sites.

“There was a lot of cussing and fussing,” Carstarphen said. “It’s been emotionally straining for people.”

About 52,000 students attend APS. Many live in poverty and rely on the school’s free meals.

Carstarphen said this week’s distribution effort went smoothly with the extra help from the National Guard and the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s deputies who lent a hand were those who typically work in the transfer unit, but the office has suspended the movement of many inmates. Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said the department helped out at the request of the APS police chief and will continue to assist with the food program “as long as they’re needed until more pressing law enforcement matters arise.”

“The sheriff’s office performs numerous outreach activities and this is what the children need now,” she said in an email.

In addition to doing heavy lifting in their masks and camouflage each Monday during distribution, Guardsmen will help APS workers the rest of the week with packing up food. They’re expected to help through the remainder of school building closures. The governor has said schools can’t reopen buildings this academic year.