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Vermont Schools Set Up Delivery Services To Get Food To Families

A person carries a box full of paper bags onto a school bus.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Steve Napoli, Putney Central School's head custodian, loads up bagged breakfasts and lunches for school buses to deliver to students at home.

School bus drivers in some communities around Vermont are still driving their same routes. Instead of picking up kids, though, they're dropping off food for them.When Gov. Phil Scott ordered schools to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first concerns was how kids would get school meals. In a number of districts, more than half the students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch, so schools have been forced to quickly set up food delivery systems.

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At Putney Central School, the kitchen crew has been making it up as they go. A few days after the governor made his announcement, they were figuring out how to deliver 100 lunches and breakfasts to families across town using the resources they already had: Food service workers, and buses.

Two people wear gloves and stand over rows of salads on a table.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Putney Central School food service co-director Steve Hed and kitchen staffer Ariane Lavoie make chef salads for lunch last Thursday. They would go on to be delivered by school buses to students kept home by Gov. Phil Scott's school closure order.

Putney Central School's food service co-director Steve Hed arrived before 7 a.m. last Thursday to make sure the buses were loaded and ready to roll by 11:30 a.m. He'd also been fielding calls to make sure all of the families who needed the food were out to meet the bus when it swung by.

Hed said everyone was running on adrenaline and a sense of responsibility. But he admitted there was no long-term strategy at that moment.

 “I don’t know if it would be sustainable to continue doing this, long term," Hed said. "I think it would be tough to ask some of the cafeteria workers to be the only ones coming into work. I mean, that’s at least what we’re looking at for now. We realize it could be a little bit longer, but if it ends up being the rest of the school year, I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate how some of this happens.”

For now, Putney Central families are receiving meals from the school's internally-run food program, with a strong emphasis on fresh and local items. A sample breakfast might include a freshly-baked banana muffin, fruit and a hard-boiled egg, and a typical lunch a chef salad, with rolls and milk.

A long table filled with brown paper bags.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Bagged meals ready for delivery by Putney Central School buses.

Steve Napoli is head custodian for the school. On a normal day, he’d be setting up the tables and getting the school’s gym ready for another day of lunch for the 200 or so students.

Nowadays, he's figuring out the best way to staple a bagged breakfast and lunch together.

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“Definitely miss the kids though," Napoli said. "It’s weird, it’s eeriness without the kids in the building every day. It almost feels like a dream, right? It’s no kids. It’s the only way to explain it. It’s weird. And, you know, I hope we get through this quick. I know we will. Just different norm you know. But we’re making it happen, we're making it happen. It’s what we do.”

By 11:00 a.m. Thursday, the food was all packed up and ready to load on Putney Central School's two buses. For meal drop-off, they drive the same routes they would otherwise travel to pick up kids.

A person driving a bus.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Longtime bus driver Deb Crossman delivers bagged meals to Putney Central School students last week.

There were a few hitches in the delivery. At some stops, no one showed up and the bus had to hang out to keep on schedule. There was also some back and forth by cell phone to find out how the other bus was doing.

Deb Crossman was one of the bus drivers. She's been on the job for a long time, and she said flexibility is going to be key.

“First few days of everything, there’s always the glitches and bugs to work out,” Crossman said. “But I think we do the best we can in the situations as they come.”

And then, as if on the cue, Crossman’s dispatch supervisor came over the radio: “You guys are doing so great. Today is going so much better than yesterday. Just think of it as the first week of school back in session, and we’re trying to get the home and school routes ironed out. You guys are doing awesome.”

A crate with individual milk cartons and a cardboard box of paper bags on a bus seat.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
School lunch delivery, by way of bus seat, for Putney Central School students.

At some stops, a group of kids waits, and if it were morning, it would look like any other school bus stop. At others, a parent is there to collect the food.

Ezra Black is one of the parents who signed up — she was out to meet the bus with her two children in tow. She said with her daughter home, and so much up in the air, it's really nice to get a few meals delivered.

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“We’ll figure it out,” Black said. “There’s good days and bad days, I’m imagining, ahead of us. So, it’s just, it’s new territory.”

School officials said they'll keep learning from every route, and do it all again the next day. 

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