Wednesday, February 28, 2024

For two weeks, the school system offered pick-up only meals. A network of volunteers delivered thousands. [Free read]

Volunteers from various community organizations, pictured social distancing in front of the “I believe in Wilmington” mural on Second Street, worked together to make sure meals were delivered to children while schools were shut down. (Clockwise from top left) Sarah Raper, admin for “Operation Ring and Run”; LaShonda Sidberry-Teague, manager of Northside Bridgebuilders; Rebecca Trammel, founder of Champions for Compassion; Darnell Freeman, volunteer with Northside Bridgebuilders; Jennifer Livingston, 7th-grade math teacher at Noble Middle School; Dorian Jameel Cromartie, member of the National Black Caucus and New Hanover County chapter of the NAACP; Janel Washington, outreach coordinator with Price Cathedral A.M.E. Church; Shannon Whitaker, director of kids’ ministry at Saltbox Church. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — When the state of North Carolina abruptly announced it would close schools through the month to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a network of volunteer groups jumped into action.

Because the school system was offering meals on a pick-up basis only, volunteers knew some children in need would get skipped over because not all families have access to transportation.

Related: Local business analyst creates ‘StayNeighbor,’ a platform set to go national connecting goods to volunteers [Free read]

So, the groups wasted no time, organizing a meal delivery program on the fly they call “Operation Ring and Run” that launched March 16 — the first day schools closed.

“I realized that the same children that need food are the same children who don’t have transportation,” Rebecca Trammel, founder of the non-profit Champions for Compassion said Wednesday. “Kids need food now. So you have to be quick. Hunger doesn’t wait.”

“There’s so much focus on the whole virtual learning,” Jennifer Livingston, 7th-grade math teacher at Noble Middle School said. “But they’re not going to be able to focus on virtual learning when they’re not sure where their next meal is going to come from. You gotta feed them first, and then they can learn.”

Staff at Rachel Freeman School of Engineering carry meals to YMCA bus, which delivered meals across the county for a two-week period while New Hanover County Schools worked out how to set up its own meal delivery system. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Livingston served on the operation’s admin team in addition to managing her new virtual classroom. Based on needs assessment surveys sent out to students, she knows many are feeling stressed and lonely. “We’re not just going into disadvantaged homes. We’re also going into homes where people don’t really feel comfortable leaving.”

‘Operation Ring and Run’

Headed by the non-profit Champions for Compassion under the subgroup Community Conversations, the operation filled the void created by recent coronavirus-related school closures to bring meals straight to children in low-income areas. The group estimates it served 900 kids Wednesday alone, serving thousands of meals in total across two weeks. Out of the 5,500 meals NHCS distributed at its 14 pick-up sites Wednesday, 1,500 were delivered by volunteer organizations, according to NHCS.

Trammel said the actual amount of students that need meals is likely closer to the total number of students receiving free and reduced lunches daily.

More than half of all students enrolled in the New Hanover County School system are eligible for a free and reduced lunch, about 14,000 students. For a household of four, a combined income of less than $33,475 qualifies students for free meals and less than $47,638 qualifies students for meals at a reduced price.

The first day, Sweet N Savory donated meals. By the second, the group coordinated with the school system to collect prepared meals from designated pick-up points and sent out a fleet of volunteers to get them to communities in need. The YMCA donated buses and volunteer time to make the deliveries. Churches and other non-profits pitched in across the county to fill in service-area gaps.

Rebecca Trammel, founder of the non-profit Champions for Compassion, carries a foldable table across Rankin Street to set up a meal pick-up station at Rankin Terrace for children who could not otherwise access meals available for pick-up at various New Hanover County Schools. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NHCS jumps in

“What we’re really hoping is the schools will coordinate a way to get food to their kids,” Sarah Raper, administrative lead for the operation, said Wednesday. “They already know where everybody lives. We’re getting as much as we can but we know we’re missing people because the numbers go up every day.”

Because information on students is confidential, the group put together its own form (both on paper and electronic) and distributed it far and wide. It asked recipients to flip the lights on between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. so that volunteers knew to ring the doorbell, drop off food, and run to the next stop.

“We do our best to weed out duplication,” Trammel said, explaining how the groups identify where it needs to deliver food. She remembers one family in Wrightsboro with children who couldn’t wait to get their lunch and breakfast. “When I came, I heard all this rustling behind the blinds, and they were peaking through to see me,” Trammel said of the visit. “They were jumping up and down and screaming because they were so excited to see me.’

Late Friday afternoon, New Hanover County Schools announced it would expand its meal program. Starting March 30, bus drivers will deliver meals to 48 neighborhoods in addition to expanding its pick-up sites from 14 to 20. “We will continue to work with all volunteer organizations. By expanding this service next week, we hope to create a more sustainable program for the foreseeable future,” Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson said in NHCS’s announcement.

Rachel Freeman School of Engineering Principal Dionne Sturdivant shares an elbow bump with a student during meal pick-up hours as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Lunch and breakfast for the following day must be pre-ordered over the phone or through NHCS’s Meals Plus app. NHCS will now limit meals picked up by volunteer groups to 20.

Given the new guidelines and recent stay-in-place order from Governor Roy Cooper, Trammel said her team is still ready to assist where needs remain. “We’re on standby,” she said Friday afternoon.

In addition to Champions for Compassion’s “Operation Ring and Run” a network of volunteer groups assisted in meal delivery efforts over the last two weeks. Those organizations include, but are not limited to Champions for Compassion, the YYCA, Brigade Boys & Girls Club, Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington, Latino Alliance, Champions for Compassion, Port City Community Church, 828 Church, Blue Ribbon Commission, Saltbox Church, Price Cathedral A.M.E. Church, Northside Bridgebuilders, Nourish NC, Sweet N Savory, Wilmington Housing Authority, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina, and more.

Staff at Rachel Freeman School of Engineering carry meals to YMCA bus, which delivered meals across the county for a two-week period while New Hanover County Schools worked out how to set up its own meal delivery system. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

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