Vehicles moved in steady succession through the 11 o’clock hour on Friday. They passed up the driveway at West Elementary School, around the building and up to the cafeteria doors.
Food service employees and volunteers from the Ozark School District pass food, breakfasts and lunches for kids, to the people in the vehicles. Some of the families also stopped at a pickup truck and trailer, where Care to Learn volunteers are continuing their mission in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Care to Learn’s mission is to meet the immediate and emergent needs in the areas of health, hunger and hygiene, so that every student can be successful. Part of that mission is a weekend food backpack program.
Recipients would normally receive a backpack with food to make meals throughout the weekend, when they wouldn’t normally have access to meals at school. Volunteers like Shane Nelson, and social workers like his wife, Carrie Nelson, now pass out boxes with the provisions for several meals and snacks.
The extra food helps families in need bridge the gap from Friday to Monday.
“All of the backpack kids have availability to still get their backpacks during the pandemic, and before the summer feeding program starts,” Shane Nelson said. “Some of them, we even deliver.”
Care to Learn’s Ozark chapter served about 230 students in its fifth week of turning the backpack program into a drive-through program, an increase of about 30 percent of its efforts each weekend while school was still in session.
“It’s made it a natural fit for us to be here on Fridays so they can still get their food,” Nelson said.
The food distribution is made possible through donations from organizations such as Crosslines, Christian County Discount Freight, Life360, Least Of These, Apple Market and Springfield Grocers, plus direct donations to Care to Learn.
“Sometimes you hear that, ‘team effort,’ but this one really has. There have really been a lot of the people in the community who have come together and made this happen, and it’s just nice that in times like this you can see that,” Nelson said.
Care to Learn continues its effort while also facing significant hurdles when it comes to fundraising. Penguins and Princesses, an annual formal event that generally brings in about $40,000 for Care to Learn, was cancelled on March 28.
“We’ve had to completely scramble to put different types of food together,” Nelson said. “That part has completely changed. It has made it a lot tougher in getting the quantity and quality of food that we want.”
The Care to Learn volunteers have worked closely with the food service workers from the school district to access different food sources.
Assistant Superintendent of Operations Curtis Chesick said that the Ozark School District distributes 1,531 breakfasts and 1,531 lunches every weekday. He provided those figures at an Ozark Board of Education meeting in April.
More than 400 of those weekday meals go out on buses and are delivered to families who are unable to travel to a school building to get them. Many of those students are also part of the Care to Learn backpack program.
The school district has covered the costs of the breakfasts and lunches through federal reimbursement, as long as meals come from buildings that meet free and reduced lunch criteria, which are West Elementary, South Elementary and Ozark Middle School.
“We are only using three locations, because we are on a waiver for summer feeding, and we do have full reimbursement from the federal government for those meals that we are sending out the door, as long as we send those out of a building that meets the free and reduced lunch criteria,” Chesick said.
Food service workers are able to share commodity foods allocated to the Ozark R-VI School District to feed families through the Care to Learn program.
"There are not barriers right now. Everybody is working together to get the job done," Chesick told the board of education. “On a daily basis, we’re giving out more than 3,000 meals.”
While the Nelsons hand out food from Care to Learn at West Elementary, social workers Mary Anderson and Stacy Johnson do the same from a distribution point at South Elementary.
Carrie Nelson is one of three social workers employed by the Ozark School District.
“We’ve reached out to so many families and feel like we’re making some headway, but we’re still having more families coming through,” she said. “There are still families that are struggling.”
Some families don’t know about all of the resources that are available in Christian County, or they mistakenly thing that outreach organizations like Care to Learn or Least Of These food pantry are closed or not operating because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That support is still out there for them,” Carrie Nelson said. “It’s hard for them to ask for help. It’s out there, and sometimes they just don’t know how to access it. That’s what we’re trying to do—the counselors and the social workers—to try to bridge that gap and let them know what is available.”
Chesick said the administrators and teachers are also using the pandemic and the food service programs to learn more about how to help students that poverty and economic downturn can impact.
“The first two or three days, as we began this process, we had to pull in principals, administrators who were not used to doing that and they did an amazing job, worked side-by-side, and it built some relationships,” Chesick said.
On the Web
More about Care to Learn: https://caretolearn.org/
Care to Learn Ozark: https://caretolearn.org/southwestregion/ozark/