Bus drivers, food service personnel and community volunteers team up to keep Gervais kitchens busy Monday through Friday

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Transportation Supervisor Rita Armstrong (middle) has been coordinating bus drivers to help deliver breakfasts and lunches door to door to kids in the Gervais School District boundaries during the school closures.When Gov. Kate Brown made her initial announcement on the evening of Thursday, March 12, that all schools would be closed until April 1 to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, administrators in the Gervais School District saw an immediate problem on the horizon.

Like many districts in the state, Gervais has several economically disadvantaged families that rely on free and reduced-price school meals to help supplement food throughout the week. A statewide shutdown of schools for two and a half weeks meant a large number of families in the district would be left without a reliable source of breakfasts and lunches until schools resumed operation.

"When it first all went down...we were a little stunned about what we were going to do next," Gervais Superintendent Dandy Stevens said. "My food service manager and my transportation director spent the weekend problem solving of what it would entail."

The school district was faced with the logistical quandary of how to provide meals to all children within the district while avoiding mass gatherings and negotiating the cumbersome size of the district boundaries that cover a 60-square mile stretch. That's when Transportation Supervisor Rita Armstrong of Mid Columbia Bus Co. and Food Service Manager Melinda Fitz-Henry came up with a plan.

Following the school's bus routes, Armstrong's drivers would ferry meals prepared by Fitz-Henry's kitchen staff home-to-home in the district, making sure every child who wanted a meal would get breakfast and lunch for the day during the closure.

"We have highways and railroad tracks, we don't want kids walking," Fitz-Henry said. "With the virus going around, they're being told to stay home. How are they going to get meals?"

While Gervais is a relatively small district compared to others in the state, the size of the boundaries stretches far beyond city limits.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Each morning, buses line up at Gervais Elementary School, where they are packed with meals and delivered across the district boundaries that stretch 60 square miles across both sides of I-5."We extend halfway out River Road within five miles of St. Paul, and then we go south all the way past Perkins Road all the way up to the Keizer boundaries," Armstrong said. "On the east side, we border Mount Angel and Silverton's boundaries. We have a lot of area to cover."

While Fitz-Henry, Armstrong and Stevens knew that providing meals to the students was of paramount importance, they wanted to make sure and avoid the prospect of hundreds of kids walking, biking or otherwise commuting to the school twice a day during the closures.

"We have a railroad track running through town and three highways," Stevens said. "I am not going to have families walking to a bus stop and they're all standing around and a first grader walking around with five lunches. It's not logical."

When Monday rolled around, the pair put their plan into action, planning for two hours of delivering PB&J lunches to each house in the district. Meals would automatically go out to all students in the district. Those families who did not want food could opt-out. In actuality, it took nearly five hours to complete the routes, but Fitz-Henry and Armstrong were not deterred.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - The Gervais Elementary School cafeteria is the command center for meal preparation, where hundreds of breakfasts and lunches are prepared each day to be delivered to all children ages 1-18 in the district who want them.By Tuesday, breakfasts were added to the delivery, providing a meal for the following morning in addition to the lunches that were delivered. As the food rolled out of the kitchen at Gervais Elementary School, it quickly became apparent that more hands were needed on deck.

Each day more parents called into the district looking to add their names to the list, and administrators sent out communication looking for volunteers.

By Wednesday morning, more than a dozen volunteers answered the call, and the numbers continued to grow into the week.

"It's to the point where it's humbling of all the good that you find in people," Armstrong said. "I've been in transportation for over 30 years and I've never done anything like this, and I've seen a lot of changes through the years."

By the end of the week, nearly 4,000 meals had been delivered and counting. Every day, new students get added to the list. Because the COVID-19 spread falls under an emergency, the district is allowed to provide meals to every child as they do during the summer meals program.

Children from 1-to-18 years of age are eligible, as are any children who live in the district but do not go to school there.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - In the first week since implementing the program, Gervais School District has provided nearly 4,000 meals."The response from our community is just amazing," Fitz-Henry said. "We're getting calls from people who live in the district and don't have kids in the school wanting to know how to sign up. It's important to our district that every kid eats."

Stevens and her administrative team help with the organization while volunteers arrive as early at 7:30 a.m. to begin packing breakfasts and lunches at the Gervais Elementary School cafeteria, which has become the command station for the lunch delivery system.

And the meals aren't just sandwiches. Last week, lunches included hot pockets, stuffed cheesy bread and quesadillas. Fitz-Henry wants to provide at least two hot meals a day, if not more. Each lunch comes with a fruit and vegetable, while the breakfasts also come with fruit. Both meals come with milk.

Volunteers work in staggered shifts, with fresh workers coming in to help with the delivery after the meals have been assembled.

Since Gov. Brown's initial closure announcement, she has since extended closures through April 28, and Gervais School District is committed to continuing to provide meals along that same timeline, and longer if necessary.

"We can do this the rest of the time and not have a problem," Stevens said.PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - The Gervais Elementary School cafeteria is the command center for the lunches, where hundreds of meals are prepared each day to be delivered to all children ages 1-18 in the district who want them.

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