LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Schools across the country may be closed, but school buses are still on the roads. Some districts are using them to deliver food. Kirsti Marohn of Minnesota Public Radio has this report.
KIRSTI MAROHN, BYLINE: Even though it's not yet 7 a.m., staff and volunteers at Little Falls High School in central Minnesota have been busy for over an hour. In the kitchen, workers wearing plastic gloves and hairnets are assembling sandwiches.
KAREN WINSCHER: Oh, they're all different kinds - bologna, turkey, ham, salami, all the stuff that kids like - with chips and all that.
MAROHN: Karen Winscher has worked for Little Falls Community Schools for 22 years. Today, instead of making hot meals, she's preparing boxed breakfasts and lunches that will be delivered to homes along 31 different bus routes.
WINSCHER: What have we got, Mary? - about 1,500 sandwiches to do today.
MARY: Yep, today we're doing 1,500.
MAROHN: The meals are sealed into Styrofoam containers and stacked in sterilized plastic totes. Workers load the totes onto waiting school buses. Behind the wheel of bus No. 31 is Melanie Van Alst. She's been driving Little Falls students to school for three years. Today, she's bringing breakfast and lunch to the students on her route. They'll be waiting at their regular stops, just two hours later than usual.
MELANIE VAN ALST: Doing this for the kids is awesome. Yesterday, we had so much gratitude and some people that would be - we don't really need - we can do this on our own scenario - give it to somebody who really needs it. But everybody is going to need it because if they're going to be out of work for a few weeks, a month, more - we don't know - they need to take this because their food money is going to have to pay their bills so they have a house to live in.
MAROHN: Van Alst's bus rumbles down gravel roads past snow-covered farms in the sprawling district. She knows every student's name, their parents' names, sometimes even their dog's name. She also seems to know which families need extra meals because they're watching a cousin or a neighbor.
VAN ALST: So this is Nicholas.
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VAN ALST: He may or may not be in the barn right now...
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VAN ALST: ...'Cause the barn door's open.
(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)
VAN ALST: Oh, there he is.
MAROHN: Van Alst greets every student with a smile and a friendly wave. Suzie Rudolph, a teacher's aide, hops off the bus to hand each student their meals in a plastic bag.
SUZIE RUDOLPH: Good morning.
NICHOLAS: Good morning. Thank you.
RUDOLPH: You're welcome.
MAROHN: It's not just food these drivers are delivering, but a bit of routine, a familiar face and warm greetings during anxious times. For kids stuck at home, isolated from friends and teachers, that might be almost as important. One girl gives Van Alst a card she drew for her with a special message.
VAN ALST: Thank you for delivering my lunch to me over break. Yay (ph).
MAROHN: After an hour and a half, Rudolph and Van Alst head back to school. This is a rural route, and they've covered about 50 miles, delivering 44 meals. Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones says for many families here, food insecurity is a concern.
STEPHEN JONES: Our rationale for trying to do this as fast as we can is simply because we know that we have kids that rely on us each and every day for food.
MAROHN: Jones says they got the program up and running within 20 hours of finding out schools were going to close. He says reaction from staff and families has been overwhelmingly positive.
JONES: To serve the number of kids that we did, incorporate employees who are still getting paychecks because they're still working gives them a purpose. After Day One yesterday, I had so many people say things like, I felt like I made a difference today.
MAROHN: For parents stressed about losing their jobs or keeping their family safe during the coronavirus outbreak, this option means that food is one thing they don't have to worry about. And for kids, having their bus driver pull up to their house with a honk and a meal might just be a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day.
For NPR News, I'm Kirsti Marohn.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.
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