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How Rural Schools Are Feeding Kids During The COVID-19 Pandemic

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Families often count on their local school districts to provide two meals a day for their kids. But with school buildings closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, getting meals to students can be a challenge, especially in rural areas.

Rural families also often find it difficult to drive many miles to see if the grocery store has restocked needed items.

“They don’t have gas in their vehicles, they don’t have groceries, and they don’t have the ability, really, to go get groceries,” says Mike Wells, the superintendent of both the Hamburg and Essex school districts in Iowa.

On a recent spring day, Wells is delivering breakfast and lunch to Nicole Hinds’ family, who live outside of Hamburg, Iowa.

“Hey! How are you? Are you doing good? Good to see you!” says Wells as he greets 4-year-old Athena Hinds.

Nicole Hinds and three of her kids are all outside on this warm and windy day.

“So how’s internet working?” Wells asks.

“Good!” replies Hinds’ son, Cayden.

Wells recently gave Hinds and her family a Wi-Fi hotspot so they can have internet access and do online learning with their teachers. Today he’s brought seven meal bags for the seven children in Hinds’ house.

“I have three of my own. The other four are my nieces and my nephew,” Hinds says.

Hinds and her fiancé have been caring for all four of her sister’s kids since last year.

With all of the kids out of school, school districts like Hamburg are giving kids ages 1 through 18 two meals a day, five days a week. Hinds says the meals save her from spending money on extra lunchmeat and bread for the kids.  

“They’re nine, six, five, four, 12, 12 and 13,” Hinds says. “So they’re eating constantly. I think every five minutes I hear ‘I’m hungry’, come out of someone’s mouth, if not everybody’s.”

Getting food in rural areas isn’t always easy. A couple weeks ago, Lora Dumler’s family ran out of cereal. She sent her husband from their home in Essex to the closest grocery store, about 7 miles away.

“And the aisle was desolate,” Dumler says. “All the shelves were like, vacant. There was nothing there. And it finally clicked in my mind, ‘Oh my god, what are we going to do?’”

Dumler and her husband don’t have enough money to stock up on tons of food. They only have one car, making frequent trips to the store difficult. The food pantry they go to has closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the school meals have been one sure thing.

“To have something that we can count on, knowing that the kids are going to have a lunch and a breakfast every day through the week, is one thing that puts our mind at ease,” Dumler says.

Sometimes Dumler’s kids get to see a familiar face like their teachers or principal.

“Usually, they don’t even make it to the house. My kids meet them out on the street,” Dumler says. “And I have to remind them that we have to be social distancing ourselves, and you know, air high fives and things of that nature.”

Wells says as good as it is to see the kids, these deliveries are more important for the many families living paycheck to paycheck. He says delivering meals allows his staff to check in on families and see what else they might need.

Nicole Hinds says the meal deliveries and a quick visit really brighten the day.

“It’s a big joy. He’s helped out tremendously,” she says, about Wells.

Southwest Iowa hasn’t been a hotbed for COVID-19, but if that changes, Wells says the in-person visits may have to end.

“And we’ve talked about that – that we’d go more to a knock on the door, not greet,” Wells says. “And we would put out a notice to our parents: It’s nothing personal.”

That may include asking families to wait to open the door until staff are safely in their cars, a move to protect people from community spread of COVID-19. But Wells says his school districts won’t stop getting kids the food they need.

Katie Peikes is a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.

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Katie Peikes