Local Athens businesses and K-12 schools are providing free lunches to students who are unable to attend school due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak.
Gov. Mike Dewine has called for all public universities and K-12 schools to close, possibly for the rest of the academic year. One of the main concerns of that decision was how food-insecure students would be provided meals without free or reduced school lunches available.
“It’s really just about the kids,” John Gutekanst, owner of Avalanche Pizza, said. “This area, it’s got a lot of wealth in it, but it’s got a lot of generational poverty in it. It’s tough, and it’s hard for these kids to get fed ... but the whole thing is there’s a lot of people who care, and we care a lot because it’s important that these kids get fed.”
Avalanche Pizza has been providing lunches through The Plains Library, which also has room for people to eat. Gutekanst said Avalanche has also been working with and sending lunches to other local libraries.
“You start to realize that (if) you don’t take care of the community, the community is not going to take care of you,” he said.
Gutekanst said with people out of town due to the university and school closures, his business has been suffering along with many other local businesses. Nevertheless, Avalanche Pizza continues to uphold its tradition of community service.
“We’ve been in business 20 years here in Athens, and the community’s been very good to us, always,” he said. “One time we took a truck down, all (kinds of) members of the communities joined in for Hurricane Katrina, and we took it down to Mississippi.”
Avalanche Pizza also bakes bread for the local food banks, Gutekanst said.
The lunches include various types of sandwiches and chips, Gutekanst said.
“It was families coming, four or five kids,” he said. “Getting a school lunch, no stigma attached or anything like that, it’s pretty cool. The great thing about it, it was delicious. It’s fresh bread, it isn’t old stale bread ... This was made with love.”
Gutekanst said while making the lunches is labor intensive, it’s worth it. Thursday of last week, he said Avalanche made 80 or 90 lunches and aimed for 150.
“You see these kids, these little kid’s faces (when) they grab a bag,” he said. “One kid kept coming back for the hot sauce. We didn’t really have anything else to put in there because it was done at the last minute. And he just started opening them, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you love hot sauce.’”
Other businesses, such as Wings Over Athens, are doing free school lunch programs as well.
Dan Leyva, chief wing officer, said Wings Over is thankful for the opportunity to give back to the community. Wings Over Athens’ lunch program includes free meals for students under 12 every day from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
“During times of uncertainty, it's even more important for us to be a place our community can count on,” Leyva said in an email. “We can only imagine the hardships some families are facing with school closures and reductions in the workforce, so we want to do something to help ease some of those burdens. A kid's meal can put a smile on the face of a child, and to us, that's priceless.”
Kim Goldsberry, Athens City School Board member, was a founder of the Athens City School District Food Pantry. The pantry is also contributing to feeding children while they are out of school.
“With the food pantry, along with our service coordinator and our bus drivers, we’ll be able to help sustain children with lunches while we're out of school,” she said.
Goldsberry said in order to be in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for social distancing, the set up of the food pantry will be changed.
“When clients come in, or families come in, it's kind of like going to Kroger,” she said. “They just get what they need off the shelves. But because of the social distance, things are going to have bags ready ... So we’ll just walk them out to individual cars as they come.”
ACSD is also finalizing a plan to have bus drivers deliver food to families along their routes to aid in providing food, Goldsberry said.
“I’m not worried about us running out of food or us not having enough money to restock our food,” she said.
Arian Smedley, assistant superintendent for the Beacon School, said the school is using a bus system to help get food to students.
“We’re doing two runs, one in the morning (and) one in the afternoon, just to help students stay on their meal schedule,” Smedley said.
Texas Roadhouse reached out to the Beacon School and donated dinner rolls to be used for the lunches, Smedley said. She also said there have been minimal problems with the system, and the services extend to any siblings who have been affected by school closures.
“Just making sure when you get to the house, you're connecting with someone to get it for you, that's been the only kink so far,” she said. “And just making sure we capture everyone.”