Weston resident Laura Anderson is an AmeriCorps volunteer with Try This WV and mother of three Lewis County schoolkids. In October, when kids were going to school in shifts, her second-grader brought home weekly bags of food.  Laura wondered who was making this amazingly helpful thing happen. She wanted to find a way to thank them. This is her thank you.

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"I hope they know they're heroes."

While the kids were attending school in shifts, the cooking staff worked two jobs. They fed the kids who were there that day and packed bags for those who were at home those days. "I hope they know they're heroes," said Deanna Palmer, local FRN director.

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After all kids were going to school online, families could pick up a food box for each.child, containing 10 meals, 5 lunches,"

Nobody will ever know how much work went into this," said Julie WIlliams, school nutrition program secretary.

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“Lewis County is a small county, and we buy 14 pallets of meal boxes per week,” Cynthia Nesselroade said. “That’s 784 meal boxes a week, with 10 meals in each one. So it’s 7,840 meals every week.” That’s at least 31,360 meals per month.

One day in September, I heard the school bus horn and went out to see what was going on. There stood Molly, my curly haired 2nd grader, at the top of the steps, holding a big, heavy paper bag.

We brought the bag into the house and started unloading it. I was amazed. She had come home carrying breakfast and lunch for 3 days.   I expected junk food. There were apples, oranges, and vegetables. Molly immediately started peeling the orange.

My daughter attends Peterson Central Elementary in Lewis County.  I remembered hearing that the schools were going to send meals home to cover days when children were not in school to get lunch or breakfast.

I thought, this is going to help so many families! And as a mother, I started wondering. Who is behind these programs? Obviously, some people had come together and figured out a way to feed 2,587 children during the time while they can’t get meals at school.  I decided I’d find out.  I wanted to talk to them, find out how they did it, and say Thank You. 

"Nobody will ever know how much work went into this." - Julie Williams

​I’m the mother of three Lewis County schoolkids. I don’t have to worry where our next meal will come from,

but I know many do.  COVID19 has changed the world, and lots of people are off work. Even before the pandemic, for some children, school lunches were the main meal of the day.

 

More than seven out of 10 Lewis County students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.

 

I decided to start with Deanna Palmer. She directs the Lewis County Family Resource Network.

Her office, the FRN office, sits in the middle of Weston, right across from the school board

office. For years, the FRN has sent backpacks of food home with kids who need help over the

weekend, so feeding kids isn’t new to them.  

 

Deanna told me that, when the Governor closed the schools in mid-March, “it was wild! But

everyone came together to help, like they always do!”  Deanna and the school nutrition director

immediately started working together. Volunteers from churches and local businesses, including

Stonewall Resort, pitched in.

 

In October, when I walked into the FRN office, the room was full of masked faces, volunteers

who’d come to help pack food for the Backpack program. I recognized a few people.  Somehow, I

hadn’t expected to see people I knew.

 

Deanna was showing them how to pack the “Backpack Buddies” the FRN sends home to more than

450 kids.  Local churches and businesses have helped send backpacks of food home with kids who need them for years, but COVID19 reduced the volunteers and increased the number of kids. The new people were soon busy.

Deanna sent me across the road to the Lewis County Board of Education to meet with Cynthia Nessleroade, the Nutrition Director. I was impressed by what I found out. With the help of a lot of volunteers, Lewis County was pulling off a complicated schedule aimed at getting food to as many kids as possible.

Cynthia’s secretary turned out to be Julie Williams, my friend of many years. Again, another familiar face. Our children have grown up together and her son and family use to come stand in front of our house to watch the parades down Main Street.

I had no clue that so many people I know are involved. Julie is just as enthusiastic about the feeding program as Cynthia is. “In Lewis, there’s a great network,” Cynthia said. “Not only do you have the school network, but also you have the FRN that works hand in hand with the churches and businesses.”​​​

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​Cynthia Nesselroade, top, school nutrition director, and Deanna Palmer, FRN director, worked together as a team. "I'm grateful for that," Nesselroade said.

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Back in March, at the start of the pandemic, the kids were going to school and eating shifts at first. “Everybody helped,” Nesselroade said. “There’s no way the cooks could have done it by themselves.”

 

The cooks had to get the food ready for the kids who were in school, but the students couldn’t all come to the cafeteria at once, so they had to be served in shifts. “At the same time, the cooks had to get the food packed and ready to send home to the kids who weren’t there. To make it happen, she said, “everybody helped when they had a spare minute – teachers, guidance counselors, administrators.”

 

Stonewall Jackson Resort employees pitched in, she said.  Twice a week, they spent 5-6 hours helping pack and distribute 800 - 900 meals, because they had the storage and space. “The school system had the food shipped there, and they packed it,” said Nesselroade. Ten school employees stayed at the resort to help.

 

The cooks couldn’t keep doing two jobs, cooking for students who were attending school while they packed food for students at home, Nesselroade said. So the system tried a vended meals program shipped from several states away. The kids didn’t like the food. “Some of the food in the vended meal boxes included things the kids might not have wanted,” she said.

She discovered Multitude Meals, a West Virginia company based in Scott Depot that was created specifically to help feed people during the pandemic. They buy in West Virginia as much as possible. “I was one of the first in the state to use this company, and now four other counties have chosen to purchase their meals with them.”

So since March, Lewis County has developed a complex system.

 

At first, every Lewis County family that had kids attending school part time, regardless of income, got a three-day food bag that went home with the kids. It included breakfast. Three schools, including Molly’s, already participated in the USDA fresh fruit and vegetable program, so that got folded in.

 

But as the pandemic deepened and more kids were home fulltime,  the school system went to the five-day-a-week boxes. Every Wednesday, families can pick up a five-day meal box for each student who is attending school online full-time at home. People can get approved to deliver the boxes to families that have no way to pick up. Churches and several volunteers do that.​​

 

At the end of each week, the Backpack Buddies go out.

 

For now, each Wednesday morning, a refrigerated truck from Multitude Foods is parked outside Robert L Bland Middle School, filled with big boxes that hold ten meals. People can pick them up there.

“Wow,” Cynthia Nesselroade said. “When I stop to think about it, I guess we did some stuff. But who has time to stop and think about what's already been done?" 

 

"We’ve got to be ready to turn on a dime,” she said. "If they tell us next week that all our kids have to stay home for months, we’re probably going to have to go back to cooking and packing all our own food.”

 

The unsung heroes: lots of them

My last stop on my journey was Robert L Bland Middle School. I was allowed to watch as people came to get the food boxes.  The kitchen staff and other staff placed box after box in family cars. My friend Julie was right there helping.

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The kids are often in the car with their parents, so the cooks get a chance to see them then. You can see their smiles through their masks. “It’s hard on them to not get to see and talk to the kids,” Nesselroade said. “They want their kids to have good home-cooked meals made in the cafeteria.”

The man driving the van in front of me drove away with close to 30 boxes.   When I asked Julie about that, she said that he had been cleared to deliver meals to families that couldn’t get out to pick them up.

What happens to the left-over boxes? “We usually run out,” Julie said.

​While students were attending school in shifts, the cooks packed food bags for the kids to take home at the end of their shift. 

 

In March and April alone, Deanna Palmer said, more than 100,000 meals and nearly 6,500 snack packs were put together and distributed across Lewis County, mainly by school employees and volunteers.

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The FRN-School System team kept the public informed as the pickup details changed from week to week.

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This is the contents of the Multitude Foods food box, all meeting USDA standards. Multitude Foods, based in Putnam County, was created to feed West Virginians during the pandemic. Most all the food is bought in West Virginia. 

 

Each Lewis County box always includes a West Virginia  pepperoni roll, "something fun for the kids to look forward to," Nesselroade said.

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Nesselroade had special praise for the cooks. “Everybody is learning, and everyone is having to pivot during this time of COVID, and it’s difficult, but the cooks have been so great here, I mean really, really great," Nesselroade said.

“Some of these kids only get these meals at school,” Nesselroade said, “and the cooks worry about them. There is a lot of heart behind what the cooks do.”

The cafeterias are closed to the students and teachers, so the cooks do their good work without an audience. These dedicated employees love their jobs and the children. They are the backbone of the Lewis County Schools feeding effort and instrumental in making sure no child goes hungry. I hope they know that they’re heroes. 

What I learned from this experience

One of the draws to a community like ours is the way we can work together in an emergency to make sure that people’s needs are met. I saw that in action.

I never thought about what went into the school food program. We send our kids to school and they are fed. Now, if our kids don’t go to school, and they still get fed by the schools and community.

This has opened my eyes to what a wonderful community we have, with their willingness to come together for a common good. It inspires others – like me - to get more involved. I asked myself if I can reach out and see if anyone needs help getting meals delivered. I’ve found four families I can help. I will do what I can or connect people to get the help they need. 

 

West Virginians all around us - people we know -  are making sure children have access to healthy, much needed food.  That makes me feel proud.

Volunteers with the Lewis County Family Resource Network packed thousands of lunches for children during the sunmer. In summer 2020, six million meals were served across West Virginia schools, compared to 500,000 last summer.

If you would like to find out about what's happening around hunger in your own county or if you'd like to volunteer, here are good places to check. 

County by county school feeding site information: https://wvde.us/covid19/feeding-site-information/

Student feeding plans change as attendance plans change, so your local school or county board office is the best source of up-to-date information for menus, product availability, dietary needs, and meal distribution information. This page tells you how to find current information for your county.

The WV Foodlink site includes a moveable map that locates the food pantries and food stores in your county and tells you which stores accept SNAP. 

WV Food ER 2020. A grassroots facebook page that covers food needs and general needs. If you have a question, post it!

Rapid Response WV: A list of 1,031 resources in all counties. 

Links to media covering WV school food distribution during the pandemic:  USA Today, WV public radio, WVNSTV.