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Meals on the bus: Jerome schools deliver free lunch to area students
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Meals on the bus: Jerome schools deliver free lunch to area students

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JEROME — Many students come running from their homes when they see the bus approach, peppering Josh Crandall with questions about school. Some who are especially excited need a gentle reminder about social distancing guidelines when they ask for a hug.

“When they see the buses, they’re happy,” Crandall said. “They need us there.”

Crandall is the manager of North Side Bus Company, which contracts with Jerome School District. Together, they’re delivering free meals directly to families in an effort to keep children fed and bus drivers employed.

The State Board of Education last week extended the closure of Idaho’s public schools through the end of the academic year in response to COVID-19. Districts are required to offer meal service during the shutdown. Jerome schools continue to serve about 5,000 meals a day.

Jerome Middle School nutrition manager Emilee Rose said the pandemic has disrupted the lives of many students, but one thing remains the same: kids need to eat.

“It helps them to know that we’re still here and we still care,” Rose said. “We’ll be here when they get back.”

Thousands of children in Idaho rely on school for food every day. Nearly 43% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, according to the State Department of Education. About 64% qualify in Jerome, one of the highest rates in the state.

That need doesn’t change with learning taking place at home, district food service coordinator Brianna Luper said. For many, school breakfast and lunch is the only opportunity for a healthy meal.

“It’s the one thing that’s consistent in their life,” Luper said.

Bus drivers deliver food to students

Manager Josh Crandall, of North Side Bus Co., hands Lead Teacher Amanda Dugger lunches for her students April 3 at Jerome Little Tigers Preschool and Day Care in Jerome.

But a statewide stay-home order has complicated the logistics of feeding everyone in need. That’s why Jerome turned to its bus system to bring meals directly to patrons.

Crandall said the number of families participating in the delivery program continues to grow, and his route alone serves nearly 200 meals a day. In addition to convenience, he said the system allows students to stay in contact with their bus driver — one of the few familiar faces they still get to see.

Parent Bonnie McKay said her kids enjoy having the meals while away from school.

“It’s exciting for the kids to have something normal each day when everything in life is so different right now,” McKay said.

The bus company, which also offers charter services, has been hit hard by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Crandall estimated they’ve lost about 85% of their business between school closures and event cancellations. The arrangement with the school district allows some drivers to continue working during a time when a record number of Idahoans are applying for unemployment.

Bus aide Amanda Sitter said she appreciates the new task but admitted the situation makes her a bit nervous. Her father has a weakened immune system and is at heightened risk for the virus.

“I’m always afraid I’m going to bring something home,” she said. “He’s not going to survive if he gets it.”

So why continue to work?

“I need the money,” she said. “I’ve got three boys to support, too.”

Crandall said employees are taking extra safety precautions during deliveries, including wearing gloves and masks, sanitizing buses and maintaining social distance as much as possible. One way or another, they will get the food to those who need it, he said.

“If I have to deliver to the whole town of Jerome, I will,” he said. “I’m not going to just stop because I can’t go to bed if people are hungry.”

Buses deliver meals to their normal stops around 11 a.m. No signup is necessary.

Meals are also available for pickup from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Jerome middle and high schools, Jefferson Elementary and Horizon Elementary.

All children 1-18 years old may receive breakfast and lunch for free.

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