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Mount Pleasant resident Shelia Smith (left) pulls her grandchildren Gracelia Smith and Eliana Smith to CCSD Nutrition Services meal distribution site at Laing Middle School on Wednesday, March 18. Also pictured are CCSD staff Leslie Busche and Bobby Harrison.

When Gov. Henry McMaster’s ordered public schools statewide to shut down services on March 15 citing COVID-19 concerns, this included Charleston County School District (CCSD). McMaster and Education Superintendent Molly Spearman co-announced on Tuesday, March 24 that schools would not re-open in April.

All CCSD school-related activities and travel, including before and after school programs have been cancelled through April 13. Except for one CCSD program that will benefit the district’s entire student body.

Last week, CCSD Nutrition Services launched a grab-and-go style meal distribution at more than a dozen sites district-wide. The free-food initiative began March 16 and will rollout the rest of the month and likely until April 10.

The drive-thru/walk-up service consisted of an outdoor, cafeteria-style lunch and breakfast for the next day, all free-of-charge. The meals were offered to all CCSD students 18-years-old and younger and even students from Berkeley County, Dorchester County and neighboring districts are eligible.

“You may know of our district motto ‘Students are the heart of our work.’ We’ll, we’re proving it right now,” said Walter Campbell, CCSD Nutrition Services executive director.

Campbell and his staff began planning the meal distribution on Wednesday, March 11. He said previous hurricanes helped with the preparation. The rest of the plan required wholehearted trust in his employees.

For Campbell, it’s about serving more than food, it’s serving comfort. He noted the days are long, but the time put in is extremely worthwhile.

“The district and the state are really pulling together and they are reaching out to any child in any district to any school that qualifies to get a meal,” Campbell added.

The hours of operation are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Meals include perishable components and were stored in temperature-controlled environments prior to distribution.

Each day the menu rotates, everything from pizza kits, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, ham sandwiches, yogurt, cheese, cereal and choice of white or chocolate milk. One meal kit per child unless a customer returns with a different set of children who couldn’t make it previously.

“This is what we do every day regardless of the emergency situation and it really is very gratifying to see the appreciation from the children that are coming to pick-up the meals to the parents,” said Suzanne Cottingham, CCSD Nutrition Services administrator.

This week will feature a cold menu similar to last week’s due to the nature of CCSD’s quick response. Starting next week, on March 30, CCSD will be introducing hot menu items as well.

The challenge will be keeping the food choices at desired temperatures and equipment in adherence to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, according to Cottingham.

“Despite all of the chaos going around us we’re just stepping up to the plate and doing what we normally do in a little bit of a chaotic mode,” Cottingham said.

Among the 15 sites across the district, Laing Middle School was the sole location for the East Cooper area. On Wednesday, March 18 alone the school distributed 3,400 breakfasts and 3,400 lunches during the two-hour time frame.

Just a handful of CCSD Nutrition Services employees were operating the drive-thru. Two of which were Leslie Busche and Bobby Harrison.

Busche, who’s been with CCSD for a little more than three years, noted how thankful the recipients were. In return, CCSD was equally grateful to be able to help those on the receiving end.

“It means a lot to me to know that I’m helping somebody who may not be able to afford a breakfast or a lunch,” Busche said. “It warms my heart to know that I’m helping my community during a really hard time.”

Busche reported how the number of pick-ups were increasing by the day. From Monday, March 16 the number had nearly doubled from 125 to 250 pick-ups by Wednesday, March 18 at Laing’s location.

One pick-up in particular featured a Mount Pleasant woman who walked up to the drive-thru with her grandchildren in a pull cart.

“We are definitely grateful and thankful that they’ve (CCSD) taken the steps to make sure that the kids are not being forgotten through this crisis,” Shelia Smith said. “That they’re making sure their still being educated, still getting the lunches and breakfasts and just coming together as a community.”

Busche reported there were no incidents on her watch where an individual had to be turned away for not meeting the criteria or taking advantage of the resources offered.

“There are kids that don’t have an opportunity to get a breakfast or lunch and this provides the parents one less thing to think about during this crisis, that their kids will be fed,” Smith added.

Cottingham did notice a trend of volunteerism where parents offered to pick-up meals for other families like a Meals on Wheels-type initiative. However, under USDA guidelines, CCSD has to be the distributor of the meals. They also request that the students be with the adult when they come to pick-up the meal.

“We’ve kind of been in reactive mode and now we realize what some of the challenges are and we do want to make this sustainable because it appears that this may be for a longer duration than we anticipated,” Cottingham said.

During last week’s distribution, CCSD distributed a total of 34,314 meals district-wide. Out of those, 2,318 meals were provided in the Mount Pleasant area, according to Campbell.

“The district and the food service employees all over the state and nation are doing it because they truly love their kids. It’s not just us, it’s everybody,” Campbell added.

For designated meal distribution sites, visit bit.ly/MealSites. For additional sites via school bus delivery, visit bit.ly/BusSites.

For more information, call Charleston County Nutrition Services Hotline at 843-566-7266 or visit ccsdschools.com.