PARK RIVER, N.D.-- A smiling, blonde-haired, barefooted elementary student, dressed in pink pajamas, ran out of her house as Park River Area Schools cook Wanda Lee, bag of food in hand, walked up the driveway.
Lee returned the smile, greeting the girl with a warm “hello” as she handed her the bag. The delivery completed, Lee walked back to board the Park River Areas Schools minibus and drove to the next school meal delivery.
Lee is one of six Park River Area Schools staff who are delivering meals to children, ages 1 to 18 who live in the district’s boundaries or open-enroll there. The first few days after closing, the school delivered about 60 lunches a day. That number swelled to 160 on Monday, March 23, and had grown by more than another 50 by Friday, March 27.
“We’re up to 216 a day," Kirk Ham, Park River Area Schools' superintendent, said Friday, March 27.
Meal deliveries contain a breakfast and a lunch for each child, so the school’s cooks on Monday through Friday mornings are preparing more than 400 meals.
While the first few days of deliveries were a bit chaotic because some houses didn't have numbers on them, the cooks and delivery volunteers have a system in place now and can usually load and deliver the meals within an hour and a half. Each house that receives a delivery has a window marked with a pink piece of paper indicating it is a delivery point.
Cooks paraprofessionals and bus drivers deliver the food between 11 a.m. and noon on weekdays. The noon meals are made up of hot food, such as taco in a bag, cheeseburgers and burritos two days a week and sandwiches three days a week. The breakfast menu includes hot food, such as pancakes and sausages, and cold food, like cereal. The students also receive milk, fruit and juice with the meals.
During the two weeks that school has been closed, the number of requests for delivered meals has more than tripled, Ham said.
The school staff have delivered lunches to homes as far as 30 miles from Park River. The parents of students who live longer distances from the school meet the driver at a central point and receive a week’s worth of meals that can be heated at home.
“The response has been phenomenal,” said Ham, noting that appreciation for the meals doesn’t just come from the families receiving them, but also from school and community members who are grateful that children aren’t going hungry during the school closure.
The meal deliveries, especially, set the minds of Park River Area School teachers at ease, Ham said.
“That’s just one less thing on their plate; they know the kids are well-fed,” he said.
“I think it lightens their load,” said Ashley Bezuidenhout, head school cook.
Bezuidenhout, Lee, Johanna Samdahl and Lyana Johnson prepare and pack the meals at the school each morning.
“I’ve been coming in at 6, getting everything ready,” Bezuidenhout said.
Besides the food, that preparation includes puzzles, dot-to-dot exercises and word searches she and the other cooks put in the meal bags.
“Just something else to do at home,” Bezuidenhout said.
The food, activities and, most of all, the sight of school staff brightens the student’s days as they stay at home and do distance learning.
That was clear on Friday when four children greeted Lee when she delivered their food, then gathered around the box to see what she had brought them.
“They’re excited because they get to see the ladies from the school,” Amanda Mlcoch, the children’s caregiver, said smiling as she watched them.
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