Gilmer County Schools: A Fresh Path through Feeding Children during COVID-19

Here they come!! Running down the hill! Smiles spread across their faces! What’s the big event? The school bus is coming! But they’re not going to school; they’re receiving breakfast and lunch. During the week, this is a daily occurrence to which students throughout the Gilmer County School District look forward. We hear so much about essential workers, that it’s important to remember that the school nutrition workers, bus drivers, and other hourly school employees who deliver food to approximately 1700 of Gilmer County’s students and other daily during the week are essential! They are a nutritional and social lifeline for the children and families they serve!

One of the thankful students who receive breakfast and lunch from the school nutrition staff and bus drivers.

March 13, 2020, was the last day of school for Gilmer County Schools in Ellijay, Georgia, where I teach. At first, we thought we would return to school in a week or two. Then after Spring Break. Then May 1. Then not at all. Classes went online, athletic and extracurricular events were cancelled, and prom was postponed. This is true for most of the schools in this nation, so why focus on Gilmer County? Because, even though everything else had screeched to a halt, Gilmer County never stopped meeting the needs of its students and community.

Linda Waters, school nutrition director for the county and 45-year veteran in this field, explains, “Because 65% of Gilmer students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, we were able to take advantage of federal programs that allowed us to keep getting food to our kids similar to the Seamless Summer program we do each year. Even with that money, we’re operating at a loss, and many school districts are choosing not to continue feeding their students like we have.”

Because of the financial loss, many Georgia districts only continued providing meals for a week after schools closed, and some districts decided not to feed their students at all during this time, but Gilmer County chose to feed their students.

The awareness of the students' needs and meeting those needs is something that comes from the very top of the organization. Gilmer County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs says, “We are always mindful that there are so many of our students who depend on our school nutrition program to be fed. Many of our students whose parents worked before are no longer working, which is a major burden on all these families. Today, over 1800 lunches and breakfasts were delivered, and we feel good about taking the food to their doors.”

You’re hearing more about this recently, but many people never before realized the role school nutrition programs play in the lives of children from pre-K to high school. Kids come to school to learn, but they also come to school to have so many of their needs met. According to, 22 million U.S. children depend on the meals provided at school. For some, an abbreviated school year was a dream come true (most have changed their minds about that), but for many, their first thought was, “Who will feed me?”

I have a vivid memory of the last day of school. High school students went to the food pantry in the counselors’ suite and collected grocery bags full of food--massive jars of peanut butter, crackers, canned ravioli, everything they could cram in a bag. They loaded the bus for home with these supplies in their hands. As a teacher, seeing them gladly carry home bags of food, when some students in my former schools would have been humiliated, reminded me that so many of my students would do without meals if something wasn’t done to help them while school was canceled.

It was at this point of need, that Gilmer County Schools, like so many other school districts, went into action. The first week after dismissal, bus drivers took food to drop off points in the area where children of all ages, whether they attended Gilmer County Schools or not, could come and pick up breakfast and lunch. This really is nothing new for Gilmer. Each summer, they participate in the Seamless Summer nutrition program where breakfast and lunch are provided at these drop-off points. The Seamless Summer Option is, according the the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, a Federal meal program that encourages more schools to provide meals in low income areas during the traditional summer vacation periods The goal is to ensure that children who rely on school breakfasts and lunches have access to nutritious meals when the school year ends or is not in session.

Above: Photo of students receiving their meals and Facebook Post that accompanied this photo. "Thank you Gilmer County Schools for bringing our kiddos lunch! Rory was so excited to get lunch off the bus today.

Today they got :

Ham sandwich, orange, chocolate milk, juice box (apple), Graham crackers, Doritos and fresh raw broccoli. They are stoked and eating them on the front porch in this gorgeous weather! Take advantage of these lunches! They have made one for EVERY CHILD UNDER 18 regardless of need."

By the second week of school’s closure, the buses were running their regular school-day routes to take these meals directly to the kids. The bus drivers and school nutrition workers donned masks and gloves, left the safety of their own homes and families, and went out to make sure students were being taken care of regardless of the risk to themselves.

Waters says, “Many of our nutrition workers are over 60 years of age, and some are over 70, but they have still been coming in to prepare meals and help get these meals to the community.”

Daniel Petkus, a school nutrition worker and bus driver, says that he and his family have had to consider what to do if he is exposed to the virus. “If I’m exposed, I’ll stay in our family’s travel trailer to keep from exposing my wife and children. Being exposed is something we have to consider, but it doesn’t stop us from making sure the kids get fed.”

Above: School nutrition workers in masks and gloves prepare to provide meals. Below: bus drivers load the meals and prepare to hit the road on deliveries.

Last week, these heroes distributed meals to over 1700 children in just one day, and that’s breakfast and lunch, so 3400 meals!. This week the number has climbed to 1800 children served. Multiply that by 10, five-day weeks of school being out, and they have delivered about 170,000-180,000 meals!

Though helping to meet the nutritional needs of the community is just one of the things this accomplishes, there are other benefits. This program provides a means for district employees in the school nutrition program, transportation, and other hourly employees, to continue to earn money. It’s taken a dedicated force of people who wanted to work in spite of risk to make this happen. The earning opportunity has been great, but, these people will be the first to tell you, “It’s all for the kids!”

"We were trying to find a way to pay our hourly workers within what we were allowed by law," explains Dr. Downs. "This gave us an opportunity for our bus drivers to work and meet the kids's needs. When we do summer meals, there are a number of students who can’t get to the sites. In this situation, we already had budgeted for our drivers and could put them to work taking the meals directly to the kids. It was mutually beneficial."

What does a regular day look like for those who provide these meals? The staff arrives around 7:30-8:00 each weekday morning to prepare breakfasts and lunches. Breakfast includes fruit juice, milk, fruit--frozen or fresh, and two grains such as cereal or ready-to eat waffles or pancakes. Lunch includes fresh or frozen fruit, milk, vegetables, and an entree that must include whole grains and a lean protein. “This is a very work-intensive and rapid process. We try to prepare something hot every day except Friday, and all of these meals have to be cooked and then packaged into disposable containers,” explains Waters. Remember this is the preparation of well over 3,000 meals a day.

Above: Photo of a student's lunch and the Facebook Post that accompanied it. "This is what we got from the Gilmer lunch bus today. Not gonna lie, I wouldn’t mind having some of that chicken myself. If you have kids in Gilmer County you should definitely do this. Doesn’t matter where they go to school, or if they go to school as long as they are under 18. Free food!! Can’t be turning that down....."

Another aspect of the food that is being delivered is it offers students a chance to get nutritious foods that they may not get at home or even special treats. “They get a legume, dark vegetable, or an orange/red vegetable everyday. They also get fruit. Many parents are not be able to buy this because it’s expensive, but they get it now,” says Payne.

An example of a day’s lunch and the next day’s breakfast with accompanying Facebook post from Linda Waters: Gilmer County Schools serving hamburger, baked beans, fresh apple and milk for lunch today. Honey Nut Cheerios, waffle graham crackers, juice, fresh orange and milk for breakfast tomorrow.

Providing the food meets a physical need for these students, but the arrival of the food in their school buses meets a need for connection that for so many kids is going unmet.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of the kids and parents that come to our bus, it’s not so much about the food,” says Petkus. “They miss the school! They miss their peers, teachers, and bus drivers. Every day, a little boy says, ‘Tell Miss Bobby I said ‘hi.’’ These kids miss their teachers!”

Dr. Downs was given a chance to ride along on a food delivery. She says, "We drove for about 20 minutes down a dirt road up to the top of the mountain. When we arrived, a little boy jumped up on the bus steps because he wanted to see his bus driver. The driver told me that getting his meals every day was probably the only interaction the child would have with people outside of his home."

JoDee Payne adds, “Every day it’s like finding a treasure or getting a surprise. They genuinely look forward to seeing us. One child comes running down the hill each day afraid he’ll miss the bus. He looks forward to it and wants to know what’s coming the next day, so he can be ready.”

Parents, many of whom are out of work, are helped by this as well. Some have lost their jobs, but many are essential workers who could work if their children were in school. Right now, they can’t work because there is no one to watch their children. As the numbers of those affected continues to grow, Petkus wonders how this will affect these families in the coming months, “How are the parents going to be able to work and support and feed their kids? The feeding of these kids is even more important.”

Finally, this interaction also meets an emotional need for school employees. “It’s a blessing to get to deliver these meals,” says Petkus. “I enjoy going out and seeing my kids. I have lain awake at night worrying about students wondering if the kids know that the bus is coming and whether or not they’re getting a meal. This impacts me. I feel a sense of relief when I find out that some of the kids that I know have been eating.”

Petkus goes on to say, “It feels good to know these kids are getting a nutritious meal. First and foremost, the kids come first! Most of the people I work with, if they had a choice to stay home, they would still go out and feed the kids.”

JoDee Payne adds, “The reward of doing this is knowing the kids are fed. You can ask anyone in our kitchen--we miss our children! You know there are a lot of kids who don’t get decent meals at home when they were getting two a day at school, so this helps ease our minds.”

Waters concludes by saying, “Our staff has been excellent. They have come together with very few absences but a whole lot of smiles. They’re happy with the job they’re doing and put a lot of pride into knowing how much they’re helping others.

Dr. Downs adds, "Our school nutrition workers and bus drivers truly care and connect with the students. In many systems, these workers don’t know the students. Ours truly take pride in knowing our students, and I'm glad to work with a group of people who care."

Summer is coming. Soon the bus-route deliveries will end, and the district will transition into the Seamless Summer. By the middle to the end of July, the school nutrition program will, hopefully, begin preparing to welcome the students back at the beginning of August, but even that date is questionable. How will school districts respond if the school cafeterias are not able to open back up?

“We truly hope to go back to a normal schedule. Due to financial constraints, we won’t be able to continue to do what we’ve been doing unless we go back to school," says Downs.

What will happen in the coming month is unclear. Regardless, districts like Gilmer County Schools will do everything possible to take care of their students!

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