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New Normal: West Virginia Bus Drivers Deliver Meals To Kids In Need

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, families who depended on their kids getting free or reduced-cost meals at school were left with a big challenge.

HEATHER PINDELL: We have approximately 37% of our students that are at poverty level, and they depend on us for nutrition.

MARTIN: That's Heather Pindell, supervisor of transportation for Jefferson County Schools in West Virginia.

PINDELL: We have four schools in our area that are actually totally free breakfast and free lunch. So these parents are not used to paying for lunches and food, and now they having to pay for day care along with that.

MARTIN: Pindell knows this because before she became a supervisor, she was a school bus driver in Jefferson County for more than a decade. She got to know how many of the families in her area live - for example, if they are within walking distance to a supermarket or if the whole family shares only one car. So when the schools shut down and bus routes stopped running as well, she decided the drivers could help deliver meals to students.

Marie Butler was one of those who volunteered. She's been driving a school bus in Jefferson County for more than 20 years.

MARIE BUTLER: So initially, when it first started, we helped make the lunches and breakfasts. We'd start off pretty early in the morning because, I mean, we're bus drivers, so we're all used to getting up pretty early and being out here on the lot. So that was easy for us.

MARTIN: Wearing masks and other protective equipment and social distancing, the bus drivers and other volunteers got to work, putting together meal packages to last each student a whole week.

PINDELL: They each got 10 milks - one for breakfast, one for lunch for the five days. We had juice. We had a form of sandwich. We had grilled cheese, pepperoni rolls. We had cereal. We had granola bars. We had a fruit. We had pretty much enough to keep them fed for five days.

MARTIN: Then the drivers hit the road to deliver them to locations around the county. As the pandemic wore on, Butler says she didn't expect to see so many families showing up to get meals.

BUTLER: And I was surprised because where I drive, they're pretty wealthy neighborhoods. But that's the thing about the pandemic - it's affected everybody. And so lots of people lost their jobs or were laid off. And they, you know, were coming to get the food. So I was happy to see them, and they were super happy to see us, too.

PINDELL: The feeling that we got as drivers and aides as we pulled up, there was probably at each location 20 to 25 cars parked there. So you get a good feeling when you get off that bus, and you see those people waiting, knowing that they're going to have food for a week. They were very appreciative. And it was pretty much the same people every week.

But they would take food to their neighbors, or they would take food to somebody in their church that had a child in Jefferson County Schools that couldn't drive there. So it was an amazing feeling. And I felt like not only did we contribute - so many other people around us did also.

MARTIN: School has now resumed in Jefferson County, W.V., with a mixture of in-person and remote learning, so the meal deliveries have stopped. But Heather Pindell, the transportation supervisor, says kids who attend school virtually can still come to school once a week to pick up their free meals.

Food insecurity is a chronic problem for millions of Americans - a problem that's only gotten worse with the pandemic. Tomorrow, we will dedicate the entire hour of this program to conversations about food insecurity in this country. We'll talk about causes and solutions, and we hope you'll tune in.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUJU GOTTI'S "MASK OF THE PHANTASM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.