LITTLE FALLS, Minn. -- It’s 8 a.m. on what would normally be a school day, and Melanie Van Alst’s school bus is ready to go.

Van Alst will drive her rural Little Falls route and greet students at their regular stops as usual. But instead of giving them a lift to school, she’ll drop off much-needed meals to families affected by school closures.

Schools across Minnesota shut their doors this week amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and districts are scrambling to provide meals to students who depend on them. Little Falls is one of several districts using bus drivers to deliver breakfast and lunch to school-age children.

"Doing this for the kids is awesome,” Van Alst said. “Yesterday, we had so much gratitude.”

Little Falls school staff and volunteers start preparing the meals before 6 a.m. Workers wearing plastic gloves and hair nets assembled about 1,500 sandwiches made with bologna, turkey, ham or salami and cheese.

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In the cafeteria, BreeAnn Rakow dropped granola bars and Rice Krispies treats into brown paper bags: “A little bit for breakfast, a little bit for lunch, just to kind of get them by through the day,” she said.

Rakow normally works in Little Falls Community Schools’ human resources office. But for the past two days, she's started her work day packing meals.

"There're so many kids in our community that struggle, and sometimes this is their only meal that they're provided is when they're at school,” Rakow said. “So we want to make sure that that need is still fulfilled."

The meals are sealed into foam containers and stacked in sterilized plastic totes. Workers load the totes onto waiting school buses.

Van Alst has been driving Little Falls students to school for Palmer Bus Service for three years. She said some families initially told her they didn’t need the meals and they could handle the crisis on their own. “But everybody is going to need it,” she said.

“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,” she said.

Van Alst's bus rumbled down gravel roads past snow-covered farms. She knows every student's name, their parents' names, and sometimes even their dog's name. She knows which families need extra meals because they're watching a cousin or neighbor.

She greeted every student with a smile and a friendly wave. Paraprofessional Suzie Rudolph hopped off the bus to hand each student their meals in a plastic bag.

It's not just food the drivers and staff are delivering, but a familiar face and a warm greeting during anxious times. For kids stuck at home, isolated from friends and teachers, that might be almost as important.

One girl gave Van Alst a card she had drawn for her, with a special message.

"Thank you for delivering my lunch to me over break,” Van Alst read.

“Yay,” she added, smiling.

A young student made a card for school bus driver Melanie Van Alst to show her appreciation for the home-delivered meal. Districts are working to meet some of the needs schools typically fill, including food, as schools close amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News
A young student made a card for school bus driver Melanie Van Alst to show her appreciation for the home-delivered meal. Districts are working to meet some of the needs schools typically fill, including food, as schools close amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

After an hour and a half on the road, the bus headed back to school after covering about 50 miles and delivering 44 meals.

Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones said for many families in his district, food insecurity is a big issue. Almost half of the students in the Little Falls district qualify for free or reduced lunch, and about 80 percent eat free breakfast at school every day.

"To have people rally behind us and to set a program up like this in about 20 hours was, I think, pretty phenomenal. To be able 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,” Jones said.

“After Day One, I had so many people say things like, ‘I felt like I made a difference today,’" he added.

Other school districts across Minnesota are offering similar programs. Some are providing boxed food that parents and students can pick up at designated spots, while some, like Little Falls, are hand-delivering meals.

St. Paul Public Schools are offering families a week’s worth of meals delivered to bus stops on Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays. There’s also a curbside pickup option, said Stacy Koppen, director of nutrition services for the district.

"This has really forced us to think very innovatively, and to come up with solutions that are out of the box,” Koppen said.

For parents stressed about losing their jobs or keeping their family safe during the coronavirus outbreak, this option means that feeding their kids during the day is one thing they don’t have to worry about.

And there's another benefit: As soon as Little Falls schools start providing distance learning to home-bound students, school bus drivers also will be able to deliver their homework, Jones said.

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