Schools using buses to deliver meals to hungry students

March 20, 2020 Norcross - Gwinnett County School Bus drivers and staff load school buss with foods to deliver free meals to students at Summerour Middle School on Friday, March 20, 2020. Gwinnett County Schools offers meal pickup at 68 sites and bus stops near the schools from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for children 18 and under. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
March 20, 2020 Norcross - Gwinnett County School Bus drivers and staff load school buss with foods to deliver free meals to students at Summerour Middle School on Friday, March 20, 2020. Gwinnett County Schools offers meal pickup at 68 sites and bus stops near the schools from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. for children 18 and under. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The cold, rainy Monday didn’t dampen spirits of Gwinnett County school bus drivers who shifted from transporting students to delivering meals amid the statewide effort to stem the spread of the COVID-19.

In the course of a few days, the normally in-person school meal service program turned into grab-and-go operation via student pick ups or school bus deliveries.

Not surprisingly, most families opted to wait at their regular bus stops for the food to come to them instead of trekking to the brick-and-mortar school buildings.

In the first week, 115,367 of the 138,371 meals distributed by the school system were by bus.

About a half dozen metro Atlanta districts in all — Atlanta and Marietta city schools as well as DeKalb, Gwinnett, Hall and Rockdale counties — distribute meals by bus.

Gwinnett County is one of the public school systems that began delivering sack lunches March 16. Although turnout was relatively light, nutrition staff, school volunteers and county transportation workers were ready to launch.

“We worked with what we had and utilized every resource at our disposal,” said Ken Yant, Gwinnett’s director of School Nutrition.

That meant some children received hamburgers while others got peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“All the meals were set up to be some type of sandwich,” said Yant, adding that every meal also included fruit, vegetable and milk.

Related story: Light turnout doesn't deter hand sanitizer distribution

Related story: Many metro schools reluctant to say when kids may return to class

Related story: Schools, parents adapt to quick shift to online learning

Now that the system is in place and food has been ordered with the distribution program in mind, Yant said Gwinnett is working on a rotating menu that will probably go into effect on April 6 when students return from Spring Break.

“If we’re still in the current mode, we’ll have that week when the students are out to get everything set up for longer term,” he said.

As the largest school district in the state, Gwinnett deployed buses from 68 school sites. Drivers had two or three helpers pass out lunches. Some had additional food from local nonprofits for families that needed a little extra.

Suzanna Martinez came to her neighborhood bus stop for the first time Friday.

“I didn’t know about this food until yesterday,” she said. “The school sent out announcements and I found out about our stop from a neighbor.”

About a dozen children waited underneath a tree on that sunny afternoon as two buses came from opposite directions.

“This is an area where we pass out a lot of meals,” said Jim Dahmen, a 17-year veteran of Gwinnett school transportation department. “A few times I’ve had to go back to the school for more meals. And when I’m done with the first pass, I usually come back to make sure I didn’t miss anyone.”

At 81, Dahman said he enjoys what he does and is glad that Gwinnett is allowing the bus drivers to participate in the meal distribution.

“Whether we’re driving kids or delivering food, it’s good to contribute to the community,” he said.

Fellow driver Jocelyn Zanzala was performing helper duties by passing out sack lunches and keeping a tally.

“It’s different from what we’re used to but it’s nice to get to see our kids,” she said.

Providing wide-spread sack lunches wasn’t part of any school district contingency plan.

“We didn’t have a framework for this at all,” said Linette Dodson, state director of the School Nutrition Program for the Georgia Department of Education. “This is a unique circumstance. We learned on March 13 that this would take place and we worked through the weekend to be ready on Monday.”

Dodson said the delivery program will continue for as necessary.

“If it goes into summer and beyond, we’ll put another plan in place,” she said.

In Other News