Free Lunches During School Closure

Mar 20, 2020

Bus driver Wade Hardy of First Student loads a table with Gianna Michel, kitchen manager from Woodriver School in preparation for handing out free meals.
Credit Robyne / KUAC

While the state has closed public schools through the month, many children who are normally fed breakfast and lunch at school are going without. This week, a program got started to fill that gap with free meals to school kids across the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The program was thought up by school district employees.

When school kitchen employees went back to work after spring break, they had no kids to feed. The mandatory school closure is keeping more than 13,000 students home in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. But two days later, the district’s Nutrition Services department had cooked up a partnership with the district’s bus contractor.

Amy Rouse, Nutrition Services Director told the school board the program was put together in time for a first distribution on Wednesday.

“Managed to put together the delivery system… together in about 48 hours.”

The district has a contract with the First Student bus company, which the district is paying for, even if those buses aren’t delivering kids to school. So the plan was hatched to use buses to deliver food to kids.

Ryan Hinton, the district’s Director of Transportation, said the bus drivers really wanted to do something positive while schools are closed due to COVID-19.

“People were excited for the opportunity to serve the community during this trying time. Just a huge shout out to everyone who was instrumental in making it happen, and will continue to make it happen.” 

The program started Wednesday morning with the kitchen staff packing up thousands of mini-pizzas, fruit cups and milk cartons. Rouse says the food is paid for by the federally-funded Summer Food Service program. The staff loads the meals onto 23 school buses that take them around the huge borough, which is about the size of New Jersey.

 “We were prepared to serve 6,000. With this unique event, we have no historical data; we have no way to quantify how this is going to look or how many we’re going to be able to reach.”

Using the yellow school buses give parents reassurance the food comes from the district’s kitchens. Each bus has a driver, and two or three other staff members. They head out to 42 locations across the district, and are at the first places by 9:00 am, where they wait two hours for families to claim a breakfast, a lunch or both, for each kid who wants food.  Then each bus heads to a second site and is ready between 11:30 and 1:00 p.m. 

Bus driver Wade Hardy of First Student, sets up food distribution at a neighborhood hub with Gianna Michel, kitchen manager from Woodriver School and Nelowa Nusunginya.
Credit Robyne / KUAC

Rouse says staff is practicing social distancing.

“They are serving outside the bus, so there’s definitely a lot of open air and a lot of open space.”

The list of the locations is on the new School Closure link on the district’s website. And there is a short list of restaurants involved in the program who will serve school kids a breakfast or a lunch after the district gives them proof of eligibility.

The district is trying to reach families who do not have internet access to learn about the program as it evolves.