Kanawha County school bus driver Valarie Jones revved the engine of her 30-foot bus as it climbed along her windy, rural route. Paved streets turned into bumpy gravel roads and cell service disappeared.
Her county started the school year remote as coronavirus cases surged. So, instead of students, she was hauling 82 plastic bags containing frozen chicken patties, locally-grown lettuce and tomatoes in ziplock bags and chocolate milk. School cooks spent that Tuesday morning preparing the food then bagging it up.
Jones knew nearly every kid on her route, their name, their story and, notably, who was the most in need of food.
While Kanawha County is one the state’s richest and most urban counties, families still struggle to get to school feeding sites, particularly families without cars. Jones’s route, just 24 miles from the state Capitol, contained students she knew wouldn’t eat without her daily food delivery.
Kanawha County is one of only a handful of West Virginia counties using bus drivers to deliver food to kids learning from home when school resumed in September. Some counties nixed bus delivery at the end of summer feeding; some never offered it.
“The need for food is great,” Jones said from the driver’s seat. “The families are extremely grateful.”
The county handed out nearly 19,000 meals per week to students after school resumed.
During summer break, schools that operated summer feeding programs struggled to reach students, despite efforts of school employees, volunteers and nonprofits.
Transportation challenges — families without cars and the lack of public transportation in the mostly rural state — have been closely tied to the state’s hunger issues, and the problem spilled over into feeding kids as summer programs were closed due to COVID.
While Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s summer feeding plan, families, especially families without vehicles, couldn’t get to food pick up sites miles from their homes with limited operating times. Additionally, some feeding sites wouldn’t accept walk ups and required a parent to drive up in a car to haul a week’s worth of food back home.
In late July, Mountain State Spotlight reported on a variety of gaps in the feeding programs aimed at making sure kids across the state got adequate food. Asked about the story, Justice said if there were gaps, the state would do what was needed to fill them.
But when school resumed in September, there were even fewer food pick-up sites in some counties. Some schools consolidated feeding sites to one location with a short pick-up window in the middle of a work day, and summer feeding programs faded out.
“This is a matter of priorities, and the governor standing up for kids without privilege,” said Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “It takes a lot of privilege to come and protest about not being able to play sports. Hungry kids and their parents don’t have that option.”
Feeding West Virginia kids learning at home, some of the country’s poorest and hungriest students, is a challenge for school personnel around the state, and how they do it looks different from county to county under loose state guidelines.
New Census data showed 10 percent of West Virginia parents said their kids didn’t have enough food because they couldn’t afford it. Before the pandemic, one in four West Virginia kids struggled to get enough food.
Jennifer Kaizer, a 38-year-old mother in Greenbrier County, hasn’t been able to get to her designated school site to pick up food for her 13-year-old son. The county, home to the governor’s luxury resort, doesn’t offer bus delivery.
During the summer, her designated food pick-up site was at White Sulphur Springs Elementary, 5 minutes from her home, and her husband would use the family’s only car to pick up food.
But, when school started in September, the county switched its meal pick-up location to a middle school 20 minutes away from her, and her husband couldn’t make it to the one-hour pickup window on his lunch break.
Kaizer’s son, an online learner, missed out on dozens of school meals she said the family needs.
When she reached out to the school district about the issue, she said school officials told her they couldn’t deliver food and to find someone to pick it up for her
“I’m embarrassed to reach out for help,” she said. “Nobody wants to disclose their financial struggle to people they don’t really know.”
School employees, including teachers, and volunteers have tried to reach the students they know are in need of food, but it has not been a foolproof system, as Kaizer’s story showed.
The governor hasn’t directly allocated any CARES money to feeding students, according to the state auditor’s office.
He hasn’t directly put CARES money toward any statewide hunger relief efforts, despite the pandemic pushing more West Virginians to food pantries.
DiStefano has been pressing Justice to spend CARES money on feeding students since schools shut down in March.
DiStefano is a member of the Food for All Coalition, a statewide group focused on addressing hunger. The group sent two letters to the governor about student feeding gaps. Justice did not respond.
The state must make student food delivery a priority as it continues to have unprecedented numbers of remote learners during the pandemic, DiStefano said.
“This can be accomplished a number of ways, from subsidizing food deliveries via school bus drivers on a daily basis to setting aside $72 million and reloading the P-EBT cards that went out in June,” he said.
West Virginia state code requires that public schools feed students, and the state Department of Education released guidelines, not mandates, for feeding kids learning at home as the state relied on a controversial color-coded map system to determine who would be able to learn in-person.
The state asked counties to consider food distribution plans, using volunteers and transporting food to students. As a result, food distribution plans vary statewide for a variety of reasons, including funding and need.
Delivering food via buses hasn’t been mandated.
Summers County, where 100% of students qualify for free school meals because of poverty, hasn’t offered bus delivery this school year.
However, the county did use its designated share of CARES Act money to add school cooks to pack up food for students learning at home.
“Packing is labor-intensive,” Linda Knott, Summers County schools nutrition director, explained. “Since I had done summer feeding, I knew what we would need.”
In Logan County, school leaders knew bus drivers were necessary to reach students learning at home in the rural county, where nearly everyone qualified for free and reduced school meals.
In September, before kids returned to the classroom at the end of the month, bus drivers were feeding more than 4,300 students a day in the county, according to Anita Sedlock, Logan County’s child nutrition coordinator.
“We have those children who are just so excited to see the bus and just to have a meal,” Sedlock said. “And, it’s not just a physical need being met. It’s an emotional need. Sometimes [the bus driver] is the only contact with people they have because they live so far up the hollows.”
Cynthia Kirkhart, who runs Facing Hunger Foodbank, based in Huntington, said she felt schools have been going above and beyond to feed students during COVID.
The food bank, which has seen more people in need of food during the pandemic, serves 252 pantries in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Kirkhart said her organization has helped fill in food gaps in Mingo County Schools this year.
But, she emphasized the state’s transportation challenges will outlast the pandemic.
“The pandemic has removed the band-aid of emergency hunger relief to reveal some areas we need to continue to address when this is over,” she said. “As West Virginians, we certainly know transportation is a problem.”