Nourishing the Kids Who Need It the Most
The residents of Burke County, Georgia, love their football. It’s definitely a “Friday night lights” kind of place.
It’s a rural, agricultural county where farmers grow soybeans, cotton and peanuts. There also are two nuclear power plants and two more under construction that have generated substantial tax dollars that built beautiful schools and athletics facilities.
But many of the students sitting in those classrooms and hitting the gridiron face a daily reality of food insecurity. Burke consistently ranks among U.S. counties with the highest poverty levels.
“We have some of the most gorgeous schools you’d ever see and some of the most food-insecure children in the country,” said Donna Martin, a registered dietitian who serves as director of the county’s school nutrition program. “It’s a real juxtaposition.”
Martin said 100 percent of the students are on free or reduced meals. Other means of food aren’t easy to come by with only two grocery stores and the closest food bank 30 miles away. Transportation is limited, and 85 percent of the students take the bus each day, some living as far as 25 miles from campus.
Making sure students receive a nutritious meal on a normal day is challenging enough. Throw in the global COVID-19 emergency, and you have the makings of a crisis within a crisis.
Martin and her team, however, are showing students they are surrounded by everyday heroes determined to not let them go hungry.
She leads a team of 150 county employees who orchestrate the daily delivery of 5,000 meals via 34 school bus routes. While there are 4,300 students to feed, Martin’s team makes extras for family members who may be going without. Each morning before sunrise, workers pack every bus row with breakfast, lunch and dinner – plus coolers of milk – and head out for their daily deliveries.
The buses provide something else just as important as nourishment.
“One parent said, ‘my children get so excited seeing the bus come every day and getting to eat the food they’re used to eating at school,’” Martin said. “It shows them that life as they once knew it is still there. They have lost touch with their classmates and teachers but seeing their bus driver come by has given them a real sense of security.”
Milk will flow
Martin admits it has taken some “outside-the-box thinking” to make it all work. Frozen blueberries that once were destined for cafeteria smoothies are thawed for a serving of fruit. Chicken is tossed with bags of lettuce and spinach for a healthy dinner salad. She’s also made runs to a warehouse-style grocery to purchase wraps and rolls when loaves of bread ran short
One meal constant she won’t waver on is milk. She needs 15,000 units a day, but COVID-19 has created distribution issues. She works closely with her provider to ensure milk arrives each day.
“They’re going to get their milk!” Martin said, noting milk’s protein, calcium and vitamin D benefits that support children’s growth and development. “I’ll never send a meal to a kid without milk.”
She’s grateful the community rallies around her team. Employees were told they needed to start wearing protective masks, but Martin said that would mean a daily cost of $700 that isn’t in the budget. Instead, residents organized a project to hand-sew as many masks as they can.
She also received grant support from a local farmer-led dairy council – The Dairy Alliance – and is seeking more from another farmer-created group, GENYOUth. The nonprofit focuses on school health and wellness efforts and started the COVID-19 Emergency School Nutrition Fund: “For Schools’ Sake – Help Us Feed Our Nation’s Kids!” The goal is to provide $3,000 grants to help schools nourish 30 million students nationwide who face food insecurity. People interested in donating can find more information here.
Hard work, no complaints
The never-quit attitude of Martin’s food-service team continues to amaze her. They learned during a recent week that the buses wouldn’t be able to run that Friday. No way would they let the kids go hungry heading into a weekend. So, the workers arrived at midnight to prepare for a double delivery on Thursday.
“These people are working hard,” Martin said, “but nobody is complaining.”
She hears how the deliveries make a difference in unique ways. She received thanks from a woman who was not only watching her three children but two more so their mother – a nurse – could work each day.
“She told us how much the meals meant to her,” Martin said. “Many of these parents are really struggling.”
In normal times, Martin says her job involves attending meetings and traveling to conferences. She also works as an ambassador for National Dairy Council. With all of that tabled for now, her focus is streamlined.
“Maybe half of these kids would get fed but the other half would be without enough food or wouldn’t have access to the balanced nutrition of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and milk we provide at school,” she said. “My focus is boiled down to the only thing that matters – not letting these kids go hungry.”