A colorful Litchfield Elementary School District van rolled into Avondale’s Rio Crossing neighborhood Wednesday morning, March 25 on what would normally be a school day, pulling up to the curb next to a little park on West Roma Avenue just west of 123rd Drive.
A few seconds later, two women wearing masks and gloves jumped out, walked to the back of the van and opened the doors to reveal stacks of crates filled with bags of food. The women, LESD bus driver Jocelyn Zvosechz and Food Services Department site supervisor Nichole Tudor, were among 18 LESD mobile and onsite teams handing out free grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches to kids ages 18 and younger who are staying home since Gov. Doug Ducey ordered schools across the state to close while Arizona officials work to stem the spread of COVID-19. Schools will remain closed through at least April 10.
LESD began distributing free meals at four schools and four mobile sites March 17, after working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to modify its regular summer feeding program to encompass the emergency closure period.
On March 25, district officials added 10 additional pickup sites, bringing the number of school and neighborhood distribution sites in Avondale, Buckeye, Glendale and Litchfield park to 18 (click here to see the list). A fifth mobile route will be added Monday, April 4.
The meals are free to all children 18 and younger, regardless of school affiliation. Families do not need to register for pickup and there is no income requirement to participate. Kids must be present, however.
“It’s a lot of fun” going to the neighborhoods, Ms. Tudor said as she and Ms. Jocelyn Zvosechz for families to arrive. “As soon as kids know, they run down the street and knock on doors.”
A few minutes later, “good morning, good morning, good morning” echoed down the street as families walked up or stopped by in their vehicles to grab a bag. Ms. Zvosechz and Ms. Tudor handed out 40 or so meals during the 20 minutes they were at Rio Crossing. Right before they left, two kids rode up on an ATV.
“Tell your friends,” Ms. Tudor said as she handed them bags.
Ms. Tudor said she expects more families will visit the van by for meals as word gets out.
“At Luke Air Force Base, we went from 65 to more than 90” once families knew the mobile team would be there, she said.
Food Services Director Chef Ron Beck dropped by the Rio Crossing site Wednesday morning with Gina DeCoste, executive director of Programs and Instruction, and Shelly Hornback, director of community relations.
While Ms. Hornback walked around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to let residents know about the mobile site, Mr. Beck and Ms. DeCoste greeted families, and talked about the program.
Mr. Beck said his crews are preparing more than 1,300 meals a day, and more will be added when a fifth mobile route launches Monday, April 4.
“Yesterday, we did 1,345,” he said.
Breakfasts consist of milk, a cup of fruit and a whole grain such as cereal, muffin or a fortified donut, Mr. Beck said. Lunch includes milk, a whole grain, meat, vegetables and fruit, and can be anything from a sandwich to pizza and chicken nuggets. Hot foods are cooked in district kitchens and cooled before being packaged, and kids have the option to heat before eating.
“It’s a complete USDA breakfast and lunch,” he said.
In addition to following standard food safety practices, employees wear masks and gloves, and follow social distancing guidelines as they work, Mr. Beck said.
Ms. DeCoste called the quick action by the USDA “wonderful” because it allowed the district to serve families when many of them need it most.
“We’re able to not only provide to kids who get free and reduced lunches,” we’re able to provide to all kids 18 and under,” she said.
Rio Crossing neighbors Nuvia Mendez and Juliana Garcia praised the program, as well as the district’s decision to add a mobile site down the street from their homes.
“It’s huge, because they also get snacks,” said Ms. Mendez, who is mom to Adam, Ariel, David and Isaac. “I like the portions, and it’s healthy.”
“It’s very awesome,” agreed Ms. Garcia, who is mom to Izel and Mia.
All six kids attend school in the district.
Both moms said having a mobile site steps away will save them time and money. Until Wednesday, Ms. Mendez would drive all six kids to a school site to pick up meals while Ms. Garcia was at work. Now, they just have to walk down the street.
Both said they planned to tell neighbors about the pickup site, and Ms. Mendez said she would post a notification on the Nextdoor app.
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA