BLACKFOOT — The first day of busing meals to students in homes around Stoddard Elementary School started off slowly, so bus driver Dee Heath started advertising.
“Hey, you kids hungry?” she yelled from her driver’s seat window to children playing in a nearby driveway. “We got food in here. Have you had lunch yet?”
On Monday, Heath and dozens of local bus drivers, cooks, teachers and administrators in the Blackfoot School District loaded buses with sack lunches and delivered them to students stuck at home amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Nearly all of Idaho’s schools have shut down to help combat the growing pandemic, leaving some K-12 leaders scrambling to get meals out to students who rely on them while school is in session.
About half of Idaho’s students qualify for federal free- and reduced-price meals, one measure of poverty.
That rate is higher in Blackfoot, where nearly 60 percent of kids meet the federal threshold. Stoddard and nearby Stalker elementary schools have FRL rates of around 70 and 80 percent, respectively. The rate at the district’s Fort Hall Elementary Schools hovers around 90 percent.
Blackfoot’s “Bus Bites” program, which for now is running weekdays, allows kids 18 years old and younger to grab a free lunch at their bus stop or outside of their elementary school.
The district’s FRL rates underscore the urgency to get meals out to kids, Superintendent Brian Kress told EdNews.
“For us, academics take a second or third place when it comes to food-security needs,” Kress said. “It’s been our No. 1 priority here.”
Some parents said the district’s added effort made things a little easier amid all the uncertainty.
“It helps us avoid the grocery stores,” said parent Dawn Bogler, whose two children pulled bottles of chocolate milk and sack lunches from a crate at their bus stop.
Heath noted the uncanny quietness of streets on her route — the possible result of growing calls from officials at all levels of government for families to stay home.
“It’s also our first day doing this,” Heath added, before yelling out her window to some other students spotted in their driveway.
After circling her route three times, the deliveries picked up. By noon, at least 18 students had grabbed a meal.
Back at Stoddard, educators said around 50 meals had disappeared from tables spaced strategically on sidewalks to encourage social distancing.
Some 2,200 children received meals by Monday afternoon, said Kress, who anticipated the need for at least 3,000 lunches for Tuesday.