By Kip Tabb | Outer Banks Voice on March 24, 2020
COVID-19 has uncovered heroes in unexpected places. Kelleta Govan, School Nutrition Administrator for Dare County Schools (DCS), seems to fall into that category. With almost no notice, Govan has made it possible to feed any Dare County child from birth to age 18. And do it, even though the schools are closed.
As she describes it, the plan came together in less than three days. The program includes providing breakfast and lunch every weekday in about 20 different locations—including three Dare County schools as well as the mainland, Hatteras, Roanoke Island and the Northern Outer Banks.
“It was probably Friday the 13th, we didn’t even know school was going to be closed,” Govan said. “My supervisor came to me and said, ‘Just a thought,’ and threw it out there. I was like, ‘Oh yea. We could do that. It would be no problem.’ So, of course we jumped on it and began planning it as a future thing.”
Then on Saturday, March 14, Governor Roy Cooper ordered all North Carolina schools closed, followed by the Sunday announcement from Dare County Schools (DCS) that any child would receive a free breakfast and lunch if they wanted it.
“It was, ‘Oh my gosh. School is closed,’” she said.
The framework for feeding children was already there — Govan and her staff do it every day for more than 5,200 students. Yet what DCS had decided to do was uncharted territory — any child, from the very youngest to 18 years of age, could get breakfast or lunch and no child would have to pay.
Although local schools serve a number of free and assisted meals every day, for many kid—and their parents—paying for their meals is a regular part of the school day. Free meals for all kids was new, especially because children who were not yet in school would also be served.
Govan feels it was the right decision.
“It’s just easier to feed everyone versus having to worry about are you free today or are you assisted…If I have three children and two of them are in school, I’d hate to give two kids bags and then the third kid not have anything,” she said.
To school administrators, making sure any child who wanted breakfast or lunch could have it was an important part of helping children get back in the routine of school—even though all classes are online.
“This is a really unusual, unprecedented time for all of us,” DCS Digital Communications Director Keith Parker said. “If the kids are able to show up and get a meal every day, that’s something that is consistent, that’s normal. They can see their cafeteria lady that they saw at their school. That adds a level of normalcy to this very un-normal situation. Aside from feeding kids, which is our number one priority, it’s also a time to add some routine and some normalcy to the lives of our kids.”
It took some innovative thinking to figure out how to do get the job done. Govan noted that not all the schools in the county qualify equally for financial assistance, and that other than very limited preschool programs, local schools were not feeding preschool children.
“We wanted to feed everyone without a worry,” she said.
She looked at what are called “open site” schools in the district—places where, according to USDA guidelines “…at least 50% of the children are eligible for free/reduced price school meals.”
“If you’re in a section of your community that’s in a needy area, we can approve…schools in the area as an open site, and that’s the key to touching everyone,” she explained. “If we can get a school in a needy area…technically that school could serve anyone, any child. You don’t have to live in that area. You just have to be 18 and under so you could live in Kitty Hawk and eat in Manteo, because Manteo is an open site.”
The schools where the meals are prepared quality as “open site” locations, while state and federal agencies expedited waivers so food could also be served at remote sites.
Feeding the children of Dare County has been a cooperative effort, Govan stresses. She met with Dare County Schools Transportation Director Alex Chandler to figure out how to get the breakfast and lunch to the kids.
“(We) sat down for a few hours and figured out what we had to do and how to do and then started finding people to do it,” Chandler said.
And there are ongoing relationships being forged with state agencies.
“We’ve got our state office on webinars every single day…they’re working waivers and they’ve been really flexible with some of the requirements that would have caused some obstacles or hurdles,” Govan said. “They want to know from us, ‘are you facing any obstacles?’ So they’re working on solutions for us. Then we have partners within our county that I feel like that yes, we can continue to feed the kids.”
“That’s our goal. It just makes you feel like just indescribable,” she added.