Shortly after the sun rose on Wednesday, Theresa Goo arrived at JoAnn Leleck at Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring, just as she had done nearly every day for two months.
With the colors of the sunrise washing over the parking lot, Goo adjusted her hat — a navy ball cap with “Serving on the front line” stitched above the brim — and got to work.
Each day, she arrives at a strange scene. Usually, the school would be bustling with activity as staff members prepare for students to arrive for classes. But, now, as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Goo, the site coordinator, works alongside just a handful of others, packing bags of food to give to students in need.
“We make sure the kids don’t go hungry,” Goo said, “and it is our pleasure.”
About four hours before the site is set to open, Goo and her staff greet a truck that arrives to drop off food. Then, they stand six feet apart, packing the food into bags. The work is nonstop, but passes quickly.
Right at 11 a.m., when MCPS meal sites officially open, a run-down green van pulls into the parking lot. Goo calls out a greeting: “Hello! How many do you need?”
A young girl, with short black hair whipping in the wind, holds her hand out the window, all five fingers extended.
Workers grab five bags, set them on a cart well more than six feet away from the packing table and retreat.
The girl, her mouth covered with a pink cloth mask, spills from the van’s backseat, bounds over to the cart, grabs the bags and climbs back into the car. Then it’s goodbye until Friday.
The whole exchange takes about 45 seconds, but school officials say the benefits are immeasurable.
“I think it helps kids access their learning,” Leleck Principal Harold Barber said. “Before we can talk about kids having access to online learning, their basic needs need to be met first.”
Leleck is one of 51 sites where MCPS employees set up camp on weekdays to distribute the food, which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Since March 16, the first day Maryland schools were closed, MCPS has distributed 2 million free meals — about the population of the state of New Mexico — to school-aged children.
At Leleck, nearly every student has at some time been eligible for free and reduced-priced meals (FARMS), a data point the school district uses to measure poverty.
Bordered by low-income housing, the school is home to about 800 students, many of whom have parents who have multiple jobs or are considered “essential workers,” still reporting to work during the strictest stretch of the state’s shutdown.
Many essential jobs, like grocery store clerks and fast food workers, earn low wages and many are held by minorities. (MCPS supporting services employees, which includes food workers, make a minimum of $15.32 per hour, according to the union’s salary schedule.)
On average, Leleck gives away approximately 500 meal bags — packed with items like fruit, vegetables, milk, sandwiches, cinnamon rolls, yogurt and salad — each day. On Wednesday, about a dozen were delivered to nearby families with at least one person who had COVID-19.
“We have to meet families where they are,” said Susan McCarron, director of MCPS’ Division of Food and Nutrition Services. “Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or if they’re worried about where their next meal is coming from. So this is important.”
The story is the same in many communities across Montgomery County, particularly in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty.
In MCPS, about one-third of students were eligible for FARMS pre-pandemic. It’s difficult to know what that number is now, but staff members say anecdotally, “the need has definitely increased.”
Since the first week of March, more than 60,000 Montgomery County residents have filed initial unemployment claims, which undoubtedly will add to the number of families who need food assistance.
That’s why the school district aims to continue providing meals at its more than 50 sites throughout the summer.
MCPS usually distributes free meals during the summer, but at about half of the number of sites. Those locations are in the county’s highest poverty neighborhoods, as outlined by federal guidelines.
But as the economic fallout of the pandemic mounts and more residents find themselves, often for the first time, struggling to make ends meet, MCPS officials say they feel compelled to increase — not decrease — their efforts.
Meal sites operate on the “honor system,” so if a parent shows up and says they need four meals for their children at home, they receive four meal bags, no questions asked.
“We recognize that this need will increase because of the economic insecurity that is occurring and it’s something we’re talking about now in terms of how we sustain this through the summer,” said Jeanie Dawson, director of MCPS’ Department of Materials Management. “We know our families are going to need that.”
During a meeting with the Montgomery County Council this month, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith said the district’s food services budget was about $4 million “in the red,” but added: “We intend to continue meal services.”
Smith said he is hopeful the United States Department of Agriculture will grant a waiver allowing the additional sites to continue operating through the summer and that the state will use emergency federal funding to help pay the costs.
“It’s a good thing we’re providing meals as much and as often as we can,” Smith said.
Each of the approximately 300 MCPS employees working at meal sites across the county volunteered to be part of the food distribution efforts, according to district officials. They are paid, but none is required to do this work.
Many employees, like Goo, are helping at sites where they don’t usually work, teaming up with a mix of staffers from various schools. Because they all have a common goal, the work has gone smoothly, Goo said.
Along with school-based sites, MCPS has set up a handful of sites at apartment complexes and mobile home parks. It sends buses full of meals into high-need neighborhoods where families might not have access to transportation and otherwise could not get the free meals.
Usually, many of the same families stop for meals each day, but Wednesdays are particularly busy.
In April, MCPS cut the number of days it distributes meals, closing sites on Thursdays. To offset the change, food distribution sites hand out double meal bags to each family on Wednesdays.
“It gives our staff time away to decrease the number of days of exposure, and also allows parents and guardians one less day to have to come out and get meals,” McCarron said. “It works well, but it’s a lot of work.”
Many schools also distribute laptops and paper copies of class lessons on Wednesdays, prompting a steady, socially distanced stream of visitors.
Amid all of the activity, workers remember they’re doing this job because of a disease, undetectable to the naked eye, that has sickened nearly 40,000 and killed more than 1,900 Marylanders.
“Sure, there’s always a worry [about getting sick],” McCarron said. “… We just constantly reassure them they’ll always have their (personal protective equipment) and social distancing will be enforced, and that we’ll keep doing the best we can to keep them safe.”
Meal site workers wear masks and plastic gloves at all times and, most of the time, they are spread out along a long plastic table. They’re doing what they can to be safe, Goo said.
Still, at least two MCPS meal site workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to messages sent to the community from the school district.
The two workers, staffed at Glen Haven Elementary School, were quarantined, as well as everyone who worked with them. The school’s kitchen was temporarily closed for deep cleaning and a food truck was brought in to continue services.
But in a system reinvented in days — Gov. Larry Hogan announced schools would close on a Thursday, and MCPS was distributing meals on Monday, the day the closures took effect — there were bound to be a few hiccups.
On March 11, MCPS officials told the Board of Education they were brainstorming what meal distribution might look like if the pandemic forced schools to close. Maybe some schools could be regional hubs to distribute meals. Maybe school buses could be used. Nothing was final, but not providing meals was never an option, school officials said.
The next day, the plan was suddenly put in motion.
Workers at Leleck said the first few weeks were difficult, but they have now hit their stride.
Many of the workers across Montgomery County are women with children, who leave their young ones at home to help other people’s children.
They stand for seven-plus consecutive hours, and they are physically and emotionally tired.
But when that little girl, black hair blowing in the wind, hops out of her family’s run-down green van on Friday, as she does most days, and says, “Thank you very much,” staff members smile behind their masks and keep working.
“Our number one goal is to serve our families, Dawson said. “That’s at the heart of all this. Someday, this is all going to pass and we’ll go back to normal, but these workers will be able to say they made a big difference for a lot of children.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com