Bulk Meals

Poplar Bluff serves almost 500K meals during pandemic
Posted on 08/23/2020
A child waves and smiles as she receives a meal package at one of the district’s curbside locations.

Nearly half a million free meals were served by school partners to students over the course of 100 days.

Immediately following spring break, Chartwells began to feed thousands of children regularly on March 23 all the way through June, while Poplar Bluff Schools was shut down in response to the pandemic.

“I hate the COVID-19 thing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget,” stated Food Service Director Dixie Harden, who has been in the industry for 24 years. “In the beginning it was the most stressful two weeks I’ve had in food service.”

Nine ‘curbside meal service’ locations were established across campus and at partner sites throughout the community. While the intent was to cover areas with a high concentration of students who qualified for the free and reduced lunch program, school leaders felt as though the extent of the need was not being met, so the district rolled out its ‘meals on the bus’ program the following week.

The R-I transportation department collaborated with Chartwells to make contact with families of student bus riders and gauge interest in the meal delivery service. Several routes were mapped out covering a total of 55 bus stops. As communication went out, word continued to spread, and adjustments quickly had to be made on both inventory and staffing in order to keep up with the demand.

Food service employee Rejeenia Chappel offered to consolidate three school sites and run the delivery operation out of the Kindergarten Center, where she normally works. Ten employees would open the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. each day to bag breakfast, lunch and dinner and help load up the fleet. She reached out to the kindergarten teachers for hand sanitizer, and said she acquired 10 bottles within a couple of hours.

"We needed so much food the cafeteria became my stockroom," said Chappel, who would also bring home 10 meals to feed her neighbors over her lunch break. “I was serving my community; that’s my outlook on it.”

At the peak of the program, over 7,000 meals were being served per day, according to Harden, and meals prepared were tripled on Fridays to account for Saturday and Sunday. Food service personnel increased from about two to three dozen essential workers.

Harden eventually received word from her corporate headquarters about a new grant opportunity designed under the CARES Act to support local and regional food distributors that lost customers due to restaurant closures. The USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program enabled her team to give away free assorted boxes of fresh produce every Friday beginning on May 29 through Aug. 7. Chartwells also provided storage for other recipients including the Bread Shed and Nutrition Center, and helped distribute their extra fruit, vegetables and meat on Wednesdays. A month later, milk through Prairie Farms was added to the mix.    

From the start of the food service operation until Tuesday, June 30, and then through the produce-only portion, the Boys and Girls Club had been involved, handing out food to those in need, and helping bring meals to the pick-up sites. Larry Hillis Dodge supplied additional vans in order to transport the goods.

“The stories we have been told… have been heartwarming,” BGC Director Chris Rushin reflected. “From a child cheering when she received an egg coloring kit just before Easter, to kids telling parents, ‘Mommy, this is how I pour my milk into the cereal every day at school.”

Behind the scenes, explained Harden, waivers were being expedited to loosen stringent nutritional guidelines to combat a supply shortage, manufacturers were being contacted to create special packaging, and the company’s regional chef was busy preparing reheating instructions, while maintenance staff were moving equipment from one kitchen to another. There were countless folks involved in order to make the program a success, she iterated.

“My team… it’ll make me cry thinking about. I’m just back here making sure they can do their job; they’re the ones that stand on their feet eight hours a day,” Harden stated. “When people come together for the betterment of humanity, you can overcome anything.”

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Cutline: A child waves and smiles as she receives a meal package at one of the district’s curbside locations.

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