OKEECHOBEE — Working quietly behind the scenes to be sure the children of Okeechobee do not go hungry during the COVID-19 outbreak are the men and women of the Okeechobee County School District Food Service Program. When school was canceled in mid-March, the Okeechobee County School Board knew something needed to be done about the 4,500 children who are normally fed twice a day at school but would now be at home, potentially without adequate nutrition. In response, they came up with a plan to get meals prepared and delivered to as many neighborhoods as possible.
Lisa Bell is the food service supervisor for all the public schools in Okeechobee County.
Every day during the week, they pack cold bags for each child. These bags hold milk and juice, fruit or a fruit cup and some type of breakfast item. All of these type things are packed in cold bags. Then, they add an entree to that. They are sending breakfast and lunch for every child, so the cold bags will have all the components except the lunch entree. Normally, the lunch entree is a hot, cooked meal, but sometimes they serve things like deli sandwiches. The breakfast items are for the following morning.
They have blue bags, given to them by the Dairy Council, which keep hot things hot and cold things cold, and when they run out of those, they use coolers.
Once the items are packed, they are loaded onto buses to go to the bus stops to be distributed.
There is also a driver for the dairy farms. This driver loads up and goes to every dairy to distribute about 260 meals to the children out there. They have one person who picks the meals up and goes to a certain spot at each dairy, meets people and hands out the food, which is delivered door to door.
They usually start passing out food about 10:15 every morning, and some of the routes are completed by noon. Others take a little longer. They have seven buses going out, and on each bus are two or three transportation employees and two or three food service employees. They go to each site, and the cars line up and drive through. Each car gives them names and schools where the children attend, and this can be public, private or homeschool. All children are welcome from about age one through 18.
There are some locations where they have a lot of walk-ups, and that is fine, she said. They just take the meal and go home with it. They have a lot of walk-ups in Douglas Park and will be starting a meal site in the Oak Lake Apartments/Villas next week, if all goes according to plan. This would also be a walk-up site, Ms. Bell explained.
They are doing what they can to get food to every area of the county where they think the children are, but she said, many of them cannot get to the bus stops because their parents are working or the parents have no transportation. “There are so many kids we are still trying to get to,” she said. “It’s just sad when you think about the number of kids you are missing.”
They are averaging 1,550 breakfasts and 1,550 lunches each day, but she said when school was in session, they were feeding about 4,500, so there are a lot of children out there they are not reaching yet. We are doing the best we can, but still, there are so many places I feel like are not being touched. As we hear from people, we try to make adjustments so we can take care of the problem,” she said. “But how many are we not hearing anything from?”
They have volunteers from within the school system who help prepare the meals, paraprofessionals, secretaries, principals, even Ken Kenworthy, the schools superintendent, helped one day last week, she said. There are high school seniors helping out in order to earn community service hours, which are hard to fulfill right now with so many places closed down. There are even some children who come with a family member to assist. Crystal Harris, whose family used to run a mission near Douglas Park, volunteers every day with her children, Kyla and Tyrone. Tyrone is 8 years old and said he enjoys volunteering because he likes to help people.
They plan to continue until the end of the school year for sure, but if the emergency orders are still in effect, they may keep going throughout the summer or at least as long as the orders are in effect. The community programs that normally step in to fill the gap in the summer most likely will not be able to do so this year, and several big ones have already canceled. Ms. Bell is concerned that the children won’t have access to the food they need if they don’t continue and wants to be sure that is not an issue, so they may end up going on even if the emergency order ends.
They have two sites up, one at the Okeechobee High School and one at South Elementary School. Ms. Bell runs the one at the high school, and Jeneane Rhuda is in charge at South. Between the two sites, there are about 42 food service employees, 15-20 transportation employees and about 15 district employees. They work a two-hour shift in the morning, and then have a little break while the buses are loaded. It’s too hectic to try to work during that time, she said. They begin again at 11 a.m. and go until 1 p.m. They have found they don’t have as much to do in the afternoon, so they will be doing away with that shift next week.
Under normal circumstances, Ms. Bell would be in her office creating menus, making sure the nutrient analysis is correct, ordering and making sure the orders coming in are correct. She does this for all 10 schools. “This is very different for me,” she laughed. “I thought I was going to die the first week. I found so many muscles I forgot I had.” She said this is more like working in a hurricane shelter, where you prep for each person individually in an individual bag. During a normal school year, it is not at all like this. Preparing things individually makes it much more labor-intense. It is very time consuming. “By the time the day is over, we are ready for it to be over. We are worn out,” she said.