‘There’s sunshine again’: Thousands of meals delivered daily to Anchorage students as coronavirus closes classrooms

Meena Yang, 4, carries breakfast and lunch from the school bus in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday. The Anchorage School District is distributing free meals to students while schools are closed due to coronavirus. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

A school bus traveled through a quiet mobile home park in East Anchorage last week, but there weren’t any students on board. Instead, hundreds of bagged meals and dozens of milk cartons filled part of the bus, along with a school nurse and two cafeteria employees.

The team is part of the Anchorage School District’s mobile food delivery service, set up to get meals to students in Alaska’s largest city as the coronavirus shuts down classrooms. Across the state and the country, districts are scrambling to make sure that the students who depend on low-cost and free school meals are fed despite school closures.

“For some of these kids, it’s the food they have for the day,” said Dan Booher, a nurse at Mears Middle School.

Last week, Booher rode the bus with driver, Larry Carter, and cafeteria workers, Debbie Gundran and Helen Hsi. They traveled through Glencaren Court, pulling over for about 20 minutes at each stop to serve grab-and-go breakfast and lunch: cereal, fruit, cheese, crackers, milk and more.

The Anchorage School District delivers free breakfast and lunch to students in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

A steady stream of parents and children arrived in cars, or walked from home to the bus stop.

“In between the fingers, back of the hands, step on up,” Booher instructed as he gave each person a squirt of hand sanitizer. He also served as crowd control, asking people to stay at least 6 feet apart, and he talked to parents about how their children were feeling.

The school district quickly stood up the food stations in the wake of school closures. It has six bus routes that hand out food across the city and about two dozen distribution centers at schools.

The Anchorage School District delivers free breakfast and lunch in East Anchorage on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

About 250 district employees, including the team on the East Anchorage bus, are working on the effort to make sure the kids who depend on school meals the most continue to have food to eat. About 35% of the district’s roughly 48,000 students qualify for free or low-cost meals.

Last week, some children walked away from the school bus with towering piles of food — enough for them and their siblings. Some asked for just enough for themselves.

“I’m thankful for it,” said Ger Yang, who lives in Glencaren Court and stopped by the bus. His two daughters, 4-year-old Meena and 5-year-old Kayla, each got breakfast and lunch. They really like the cereal, Yang said.

A team from the Anchorage School District delivers free meals to students in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday. From right to left: Larry Carter, Meena Yang, Dan Booher, Helen Hsi, Kayla Yang and Debbie Gundran. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Caryln Cleveland also picked up meals. She’s a mom of six and works at a pre-kindergarten program that’s currently closed. At a time like this, she said, she’s so grateful for the food for her family.

“I wouldn’t be able to send lunches with my kids every day,” she said.

With schools closed, she said, “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do?’ And I was really thankful for this program.”

On Friday alone, the district gave out more than 18,000 meals to Anchorage families, according Andy Mergens, the district’s senior director of student nutrition.

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Mergens said the district expects the federal government to reimburse the meal costs.

The school district’s nurses are also deployed throughout town this month to deliver at-home health care to students, including routine injections and diabetes assessments that they’d normally have done at school, said Jennifer Patronas, the director of health services at the district.

They’re also delivering meals to some students with serious medical needs who can’t leave their homes as the virus spreads. Other school nurses are staffing the United Way’s 2-1-1 resource line, Patronas said.

“They’re willing to do anything that’s needed to support our community in this tough time,” she said.

Larry Carter, a bus driver, delivers free food to students in Glencaren Court in East Anchorage on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

In East Anchorage last week, Carter, the bus driver, helped unload the bagged meals and greet the children as they arrived.

He said it’s hard to describe what it feels like to help get meals to kids, especially when he knows just how big the need is. Carter has worked as a bus driver in the city for about 20 years, and said he sees children every day who don’t have enough to eat at home.

“It’s amazing how a gesture like this has such a big impact on people’s lives,” he said. “When the children, and even the parents, see this school bus pull up, and then the food is being passed out, it’s like, on a cloudy day, there’s sunshine again.”

Larry Carter, a school bus driver, loads meals onto his bus on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Carter said he also wants to tell the students he normally takes to and from school each day to keep their head up and listen to their parents.

“And always know that we’re out here trying to get food to you,” he said.

For a full list of sites to get food, visit asdk12.org.

Related: Hundreds of UAA students quickly move out of dorms, while some prepare to hunker down on campus

Alaska Public Media‘s Tegan Hanlon is gathering stories about how Alaskans are coming together — at a distance — and helping each other out as the coronavirus situation develops at a dizzying pace. Do you have a story to share about an act of kindness, big or small? Reach Tegan at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 550-8447.