‘You guys want lunch?’

By on March 25, 2020

Lewis Ellis, DCS bus driver, hands lunch to waiting hands. (Kip Tabb)

How Dare Schools provide thousands of free meals a week

Through the rest of the school year, this is the new normal. A little before 7:45 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, a school bus parks at one of 17 locations throughout Dare County and begins handing out breakfast and lunch.

That’s when the real impact of the decision by Dare County Schools (DCS) to feed every child in the county is visible —when the kids on skateboards or bikes or just walking show up. Or parents pull up in a car, wave two fingers in the air and two meals are passed through the window.

TJ’s Gas & Grill in Colington is one of the busiest sites in the county. When the bus pulls up for lunch, Amber Dodge, who would be the First Flight High School nutrition manager if school was in session, along with bus drivers Bill Harrison and Lewis Ellis, arrive about 15 minutes early. They have just popped the back door of the bus open and moved 122 meals to the door when two boys and a girl on bikes—probably middle school kids — approach them.

“You guys want lunch,” Ellis asked them.

They nod. Three mac and cheese containers are handed out along with a bag holding the juice and sides. The girl goes into TJ’s to get plastic bags to carry the lunches and they pedal off.

The menu changes every day. Sometimes it’s banana bread and fruit for breakfast. Maybe a pork barbecue sandwich for lunch. Usually, Dare Schools Nutrition Administrator Kelleta Govan and the staff are weeks ahead with their planning. But right, now it more like two or three days ahead as they work through what can be transported and what’s immediately available in the kitchens.

Adelina Duro, School Nutrition Assistant, takes food to waiting buses. (Kip Tabb)

That’s about to change, as what was originally thought to be a two-week program will now extend into May, with the continuing closure of school buildings.

“What we’re now working on, is we’re going to come up with a set menu,” Govan said.

It doesn’t take long for the first parents to show up at TJ’s. Lewis hands out the main course, Harrison hands him the bag with the juice and sides, and Dodge keeps track of how many lunches are being sent home. When things get backed up, Dodge jumps in and hands out lunches.

A woman walks over from some homes near TJ’s.

“Four,” Dodge says to Ellis. “We already know how many they’re going to need.”

A car pulls up, the woman driving holds up two fingers as she comes to a stop. Another car pulls up, and Dodge asks the woman driving how many lunches she wants.

“I don’t want any,” the woman says. “I just wanted to thank you.”

“We get a lot of that,” Dodge said.

Last week was the first time Dare County Schools had ever made its nutrition program available to every child in the county. Govan has been tracking how many meals have been served. On Tuesday, March 24, she recited the figures for the first six days: “The total meals is 4,670 to date.”

And this week looks to be busier than last, with over 1,200 meals going out every day to local children. “We expect it to continue to pick up,” Govan said.

Nancy O’Brien, School Nutrition Manager at Nags Head Elementary School takes food to waiting buses. (Kip Tabb)

Getting 1,200 to 1,300 meals packaged, into buses and ready to be picked up every day is an intricate dance.

Food prep begins a full hour before the buses are loaded. The larger kitchens at the high schools, First Flight, Manteo and Cape Hatteras Secondary, are off limits though. Cape Hatteras Elementary, Manteo Elementary and First Flight Elementary are the schools that qualify for state and federal open site support.

 

The prep work goes smoothly. The women getting the meals ready have been doing this for a while and they know their way around the school kitchens. The meals go into containers, the containers are loaded into boxes then taken to the buses.

There may have been a few minor hitches the first day or so, but the process is improving all the time according to Transportation Director Alex Chandler.

Transportation director Alex Chandler in front, with Adelina Duro pushing the cart and Nancy O’Brien. Lisa Simpson, School Nutrition Assistant, is pushing the food cart behind them. (Kip Tabb)

“It’s gotten more well-oiled every day,” he said.

It takes a fleet of buses to get the food out to the sites and there’s been a lot of thought put into where the food goes.

“We try to make it closer to neighborhoods,” he said.

Most of the sites are fairly close to the schools, although there are exceptions.

“Stumpy point takes a while [to get to],” Chandler said. “So does Rodanthe from Cape Hatteras Elementary.”

Govan’s team has gotten better at knowing how much to produce each day for each site. Donna Hala, is usually the manager of the First Flight Middle School cafeteria, but for now she’s handling daily production.

“We do it based on each site,” she said. “So yesterday we served fifty at a specific site, we’ll bump it up today say by five or ten.”

The hope is that no child will go without a meal because a site ran out of food, so a back-up plan has been put into place.

“We have a runner now. Once everybody gets all their stuff out, they’ll cook a little more…and they’ll be ready. And if somebody says I’m running out, we have a runner to take it out,” Hala said.

It has been a team effort to feed the children of Dare County during an extraordinary time. To Govan though, the team is more than the bus drivers and the cafeteria workers getting breakfast and lunch to the kids.

“The community, organizations, people have been supportive any way they can. Dare County has really pulled together,” she said.

The teamwork of Lewis Ellis, in blue, and Bill Harrison on the bus. (Kip Tabb)

 

Schools

  • Manteo Elementary School
  • First Flight Elementary School
  • Cape Hatteras Elementary School

 

Community Locations 

On the mainland:

  • Stumpy Point, Community Center
  • Manns Harbor, Fire Department
  • East Lake, South Lake Drive

Roanoke Island:

  • Wanchese, Bethany United Methodist Church
  • Manteo, Roanoke Community Center (Head Start)

Northern Outer Banks:

  • Tanger Outlet, Nags Head
  • Dowdy Park, Nags Head
  • Belk Center, Kill Devil Hills
  • TJ’s Gas & Grill, Colington,
  • Daniels Home Import, Kitty Hawk
  • Kitty Hawk Elementary, Southern Shores

Hatteras Island:

  • Tri-Villages Community Building, Rodanthe
    40591 NC Hwy 12 (Parking lot beside Burger Burger), Avon
  • Hatteras Village Civil Center, Hatteras

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Comments

  • Explosive Diarrhea

    All those styrofoam containers… the sea level rise is going to accelerate…

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 9:08 am
  • livinobx

    Perfect example of how much this county cares! Keep up the good work Amber, Billy, Lewis and Dare County schools. You’re feeding children, easing parents worries and warming hearts. Tell the county and the country how we can help, too! Thank you for everything you do!!

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 10:01 am
  • Mark A

    I’m moved by the dedication of the individuals working to assure that the school lunch program continues. However, I am astounded by the lack of gloves, hairnets, and masks on food handlers, much less the lack of social distancing. For a county that won’t let people get to the homes they own because they are from out of town, I would respectfully suggest that the county health department should be enforcing basic food handling regulations much less social distancing regulations.

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 12:15 pm
  • dan

    The schools and school employees are doing a wonderful job!

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 5:25 pm
  • Andrea

    THANK YOU! This is an incredible service!

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 8:44 pm
  • DS

    the helpers aren’t 6′ apart, nor are they wearing gloves, respirators or full on hazmat suits

    Thursday, Mar 26 @ 11:19 pm
  • WindyBill

    WOW!!

    Friday, Mar 27 @ 1:09 am
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