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WATCH NOW: As new academic year dawns virtually, Danville school system expands food distribution program

WATCH NOW: As new academic year dawns virtually, Danville school system expands food distribution program

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Danville Public Schools is expanding its summer meal distribution program to serve families in more locations and with more meals when classes begin virtually on Monday.

Phillip Gardner, the school division’s director of child nutrition, said nearly 400,000 meals were served at 23 locations since mid-March, when schools shut down, through the end of the summer break. Children received bags of food for breakfast and lunch during that stretch, but once school begins, they will take home a lunch and dinner for that day along with a breakfast for the next day from any of the 29 sites around the city.

Gardner said the district utilized its food truck, which it purchased last year, along with a squadron of school buses to deliver meals to each of its distribution sites, which required some collaboration with the transportation services department.

“They went into their database and found where the biggest parts of the community are,” Gardner said. “Within three days, we had a distribution plan.”

The food truck and buses will be at each site from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

DPS Interim Superintendent Catherine Magouyrk praised the teamwork of the two departments and said it was helpful for her to enter the district in July and not have to build a meal delivery plan from scratch.

“Phillip has a vision for our kids and he cares deeply about child nutrition,” Magouyrk wrote in an email. “Both the transportation and nutrition department support each other for the benefit of our students and their families. When people work together, so much more can be accomplished.”

Once schools closed in March, bus drivers were recruited to take the buses to distribution sites. DPS Director of Transportation Services Mike Adkins said some of the department’s older drivers opted out of the program, as they were permitted to do without repercussions, but overall there were very few problems staffing the distribution routes.

Drivers have been provided with gloves and masks and have been trained in proper cleaning and sanitation procedures when distributing food. The summer, Adkins said, ran relatively smoothly.

“As we went through the summer, we had to make some changes simply because some spots, folks just weren’t coming there,” he said. “We combined some spots that would still serve both areas. The rest has been relatively easy.”

Under normal circumstances, Cynthia Davis drives a school bus for Danville Public Schools and works in the cafeteria at Bonner Middle School. Since March, she’s helped drive the food truck around to different spots to hand out meals.

On Thursday, she parked at the Woodside Village apartment complex on Piney Forest Road and came with enough chicken sandwiches, boxes of milk and juice, apples, bags of chips, packaged PB&Js, granola bars and Rice Krispy treats for 125 children.

Oftentimes she’ll pack more onto the truck just in case.

“Usually it’s pretty busy and sometimes I have to make extra,” she said.

Gardner said the district will provide three meals — lunch, dinner and the next day’s breakfast — each day during the school year so that there are no gaps in a child’s access to food.

Parents will also be able to retrieve the meals, just as they have during the summer.

For preschoolers, who resume in-person learning on Monday, Gardner said the nutrition staff will have breakfast items ready for students in the classroom each morning. Lunches and a nonperishable snack to take home will also be delivered to the classrooms because the students will not be allowed to exit the classrooms to visit the cafeteria.

Gardner said the district is able to partner with the Virginia Department of Education and the United States Department of Agriculture to operate a meal distribution program of this magnitude.

“All of our meals that we serve are reimbursable through the federal government,” Gardner said.

In essence, the program pays for itself through those reimbursements, making it easier to ensure these meals continue through the school year.

As families face all sorts of uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district hoped to eradicate concerns over access to food during the virtual start to the year.

“I am proud that our school and division leaders care about their community and its children and their families,” Magouyrk wrote.

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