Bags of supplies at Invest Collegiate charter school in Charlotte await pickup during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Invest Collegiate charter school.
Bags of supplies at Invest Collegiate charter school in Charlotte await pickup during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Invest Collegiate charter school.

As the coronavirus began spreading across North Carolina earlier this month, Katie Treece took inventory of the food inside Asheville City Schools’ nine kitchens and began creating breakfast and lunch menus from what she had on hand.

As the district’s nutrition director, she needed to make sure the system’s 4,500 students had access to food.

Instead of feeding children inside cafeterias, she crafted a plan to get food into the community and outside schools for parents to pick up as schools across the state closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Creating meal plans is nothing new for Treece, but packing breakfasts and lunches onto yellow school buses was a new challenge for her and her staff.

More than 100 miles to the southeast, leaders at Invest Collegiate: Transform charter school in Charlotte were making their own plans to feed their students. Instead of meal planning and cooking, they bought $40 Food Lion gift cards and $20 gas gift cards so their school’s poorest students and families could buy food while the school is closed.

Across the state, schools have used different meal delivery methods, but their goal is the same — to feed children who will not be in school for weeks or months as the COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, stretches across the state, bringing life to a near standstill.

How to find free meals in your area

During the first week of school closures in North Carolina, which began March 16, school staff and community members served more than 1.2 million meals to kids at more than 1,000 sites across the state, according to No Kid Hungry North Carolina, which has been tracking how children are being fed across the state.

As of March 27, about 3 million meals have been served, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

No Kid Hungry’s website shows four ways families can find free, healthy meals for their children who are 18 and younger, including a searchable map to find the nearest meals in your area. No Kid Hungry advises families to contact meal locations before visiting to double-check serving days and times.

Parents can also text FOODNC to 877-877 to locate nearby free meal sites. The texting service is also available in Spanish by texting COMIDA to 877-877. After entering their address, parents will receive a text with the location and serving times for nearby pickup and drive-thru free meal sites while schools are closed.

Parents can also call 211 to speak with an operator who will help them locate meal sites in their community. The 211 service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Services are provided in English, Spanish and many other languages.

Schools reaching out to families

Many school systems are turning to social media and updating their websites to share meal delivery plans for families who need help. North Carolina’s largest school district, the Wake County Public School System, has a list on its website of nearly 50 free meal food sites at schools, community centers, churches and apartment complexes.

Some schools have also been reaching out to families individually to do wellness checks and ask if they need anything. At Invest Collegiate charter school in Charlotte, about 12 staff members divided a list of the 360 students and called their parents and caregivers. At last check, they had reached all but two students.

Invest Collegiate’s staff also prepared book bags for each child filled with books, snacks, a jump rope, pencils, glue sticks, scissors and packets of instructional materials from teachers to help them during the closure.

“Charter schools are nimble organizations,” said Kate Alice Dunaway, executive director of the school. “You can make decisions pretty quickly, and you can make them based on the needs of your children and community.”

At Asheville City Schools, Treece and her team served more than 3,400 meals to students in the first four days schools were closed, a huge undertaking that required constant communication and coordination as rules for serving meals sometimes changed by the hour.

Traditionally, schools are not allowed to use yellow school buses for food distribution, according to Treece, but state education leaders relaxed that rule and others in light of the pandemic.

“I have been shocked at how smoothly everything has gone,” she said. “These are difficult, scary times to navigate, but I see our area really coming together, banding together as needed, and we are so thankful for that.”

Providing meals to students is one way school staff can still be in contact with students and make sure they’re OK, Treece said.

“Meals to me are love, meals to me are comfort,” she said. “That’s how we can show these students that we still love them and we still care for them.”

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Orange County. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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