School buses have gone from a source of frustration to a critical resource in New Orleans’ effort to distribute free meals to children stuck at home during the coronavirus crisis.
The city government had to step in last year after a WWL-TV investigation found school buses driving children without insurance, failing safety inspections and using unpermitted drivers. New Orleans Public School leaders said they couldn’t regulate the buses because autonomous schools in the all-charter district had their own individual bus contracts.
But now that schools are ordered closed to students until mid-April and those buses are no longer transporting kids, the school district is getting directly involved in using the buses for a citywide feeding program.
The program, a partnership between NOLA Public Schools, New Orleans Recreation and Development Commission and charter schools, has 43 distribution sites to hand out free breakfast and lunch from 9 a.m. to noon each weekday. The sites cover every neighborhood in the city, except Lakeview.
Most are at schools, but less than a week into the food distribution effort, the school district identified neighborhoods that needed more locations to serve the student population. FirstLine Schools, a network of five charter schools, stepped forward to offer buses from its transportation contractor, Apple Bus Co.
“And so we said, ‘Great, we have buses! We have cafeterias. And we can get meals on buses and get those out to underserved areas,’” FirstLine CEO Sabrina Pence said. “Any kid that’s 18 or under can come get food from any site in the city.”
It doesn’t have to be a FirstLine student. In fact, the meals don’t even have to be for one of the city’s 45,000 public school students. Private, parochial and home-schooled children are eligible, as well, and the children don’t have to be present for adults to pick up meals for them.
At a U.S. Postal Service parking lot near Dillard University on Friday, food-service workers simply asked adults who drove up if they were picking up for a child. Some cars stopped at the table in front of the school bus and the driver or passengers asked about getting a meal, then left without taking one when food-service workers told them it was for students.
Kenneth Morgan pulled in to pick up meals for his two grandchildren, one who is 10 and another who is 3. They both happened to attend a FirstLine school, Phyllis Wheatley, but he didn’t have to establish that to get the meals or show any identification.
“I think it will help everybody,” said Morgan, who said he just lost his job and was headed to City Hall looking for aid. “It will come as a big relief to some people.”
Pence said nurses are screening all the food-service workers to make sure they don’t have a fever or other symptoms every morning before they begin work. All have been provided with gloves.
NOLA Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour said she and her staff are adjusting the school bus distribution locations based on data they collect each day, to put them in places where they can fill the biggest needs.
“We’re understanding where our participation is, and our highest participation is so we can make strategic decisions of where we may need to add sites next week,” she said.
On Friday, FirstLine buses went to 10 underserved locations – seven in Gentilly and three in Gert Town.
They were stocked with bags, each containing a lunch of sandwich, apple and broccoli, and a breakfast of graham crackers and yogurt.
The list of sites and a map is being updated daily at www.nolapublicschools/covid19/nutrition.
Delcour said another charter school, Sophie B. Wright High School, was also using its own bus fleet to distribute meals. She said the district is looking to add bus sites and welcomed partnerships with other charter networks.
Pence said the use of the buses and the food-service costs are all part of FirstLine’s existing contracts. She also said grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture cover the food-service costs. But if charter schools incur costs to feed children citywide during the coronavirus shutdown, New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis said they would address those financial issues later.
“All those fine details, we’re going to work those things out, but the most important thing in this moment here is our students are being fed,” he said.
Meanwhile, one school transportation manager was using the break in school service to focus on her grocery shopping and delivery company. Nicole Wallace, co-owner of Groceries 2 Go NOLA, said her five employees were each filling 20 grocery orders per day, even before Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued her “stay at home” directive Friday.
As she entered a Rouse’s to fill an order, she said they decided to offer one free delivery for anyone age 65 or older.
“We have always given discounts to seniors, but seeing as we are trying to keep them safe, we are offering one free delivery to them, to try to make sure they stay out of the stores and can get their groceries,” she said.