Hburg schools’ get creative with Mobile Cafe to make sure students and their families have enough to eat

HHS nutrition employee Amanda Back hands out bags of food.
Photos by Randi B. Hagi

By Bridget Manley, publisher

After the Harrisonburg City Public Schools shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, dedicated staff and nutritionists worked out a plan to continue providing meals for students whose primary source of nutritious food came through the schools.

The team reworked a summer feeding program that has been helping children stay nourished for the last four years. 

During the summers, the Mobile Cafe distributes healthy meals to children at eight sites around the city. It also operates during winter break, said Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition for Harrisonburg City Schools. 

Once again, it’s feeding children and their families amid this extended break. Early said the rollout of the new program Tuesday went really well. 

“We handed out almost 1,700 bags of food containing two meals in each bag — 267 of these were served from the Mobile Cafe at our eight stops,” Early said.


Cathy Soenksen (right), a secondary English language arts specialist, dons gloves alongside school nutrition employee Natalia Kirilyuk.

The First Day at the Drive-Through Cafe

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, 26 cars already were lined up outside Harrisonburg High School when the Mobile Cafe opened, snaking around the parking lot to the school’s side entrance. 

School employees, including the nutrition team and the principal, Melissa Hensley, wheeled out carts full of big brown bags of food, plastic sacks of little milk cartons, and baby carrot packs. 

As parents and students drove up into the “drive-through,” a school employee asked them their preference —  “pork or no pork?” — and in Spanish: “con carne de cerdo?” 

They then asked how many children they were feeding and handed the bags of food through car windows. 

A student called out to assistant principal Kris Vass, “do you know if [my teacher] has the test up online for unit three? … I don’t have wifi at my house.” 

Laura Feichtinger McGrath, director of English learner services and Title III, carries bags of food out to waiting vehicles.

At 5:51 p.m., another 26 cars were still lined up. Seven minutes later the line was up to 33 cars. 

“We’re backed up to the light, by the way,” assistant principal Michael Eye called out to his colleagues.

“Hi, did someone check with you about homework?” an employee asked one family. Several families stayed after getting their bags, giving the names of their students and receiving their homework materials.

“The Mobile Cafe looked a bit different than usual,” Early said of Tuesday’s first run. “Typically, kids come through the bus to get their meal and then enjoy lunch together in a designated location…Instead, our staff handed kids a food bag, offered them an air hug, and sent them on their way.”

Innovating nutrition on the fly

Rethinking the Mobile Cafe program meant Early and her team had to think about the time of day when parents might be able to pick up food. That meant arriving at the schools later in the day, when parents might be most likely to be off from work and able to pick up the bags of food. 

Each bag contains two dinner meals and two breakfast meals for each child, so families have access to more food for a longer period of time. 

Early and her team have had to change how they distribute meals to school kids without the possibility of allowing for community spread of a virus . That’s why they’re providing more food (so families don’t have to come by as frequently) and handing them through car windows “drive-through style” to minimize contact. 

During summer and winter breaks, USDA federal guidelines require that students sit and eat together. 

HHS Principal Melissa Hensley takes stock of plastic bags full of milk cartons for the awaiting families.

“The idea behind that is that kids get a meal, they eat together, they socialize, there’s an activity, along with good nutrition,” Early said. “All of that is different. [Coronavirus] has been a game-changer. We thought ‘kids still need nutrition, but they don’t need to be that close.’”

Early also said a family doesn’t have to be eligible for low-cost/no-cost food programs. The Mobile Café is offering food to all children between the ages of 1 and 18 because grocery stores might be out of food or low on stock as the pandemic goes on. 

“With the COVID-19 situation … there may be a lot more families finding themselves needing a little more extra food because who knows what’s going to be available as this goes on,” she said. 

She said she has been overwhelmed with city residents who want to help, and once the program gets past its initial lauch phase, she will begin to think about how the community can support their efforts.   

“This is a community that supports each other, and supports children, and it has been extremely heartwarming to me,” she said. “And while I want to tell people how they can help right away, I’m not quite sure yet.”

Assistant principal Kris Vass directs traffic, followed by bilingual home school liaison David Shenk.

Partnering up

Starting next week, the program will partner with Hope Distributed, a local food pantry, to give  each child a supplemental bag containing non-perishables that will last even longer throughout the week. 

Hope Distributed is a partner of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, and these pantries work with school systems on backpack programs that supply children with non-perishable foods in summer months. 

Michael McKee, chief executive officer of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, said they are in contact with their partners like Hope Distributed about these initiatives and how they can all help moving forward. 

“We are trying to support and facilitate where we need to,” McKee said. “Our focus is first and foremost on supporting and strengthening our network of partner pantries like Hope Distributed.  Connecting schools and community groups with those local partners, and then supporting initiatives through our existing partners…We [want to be] able to be as responsive to our partners as we need to be, because we know it’s going to be very difficult for them to sustain food distribution in the months ahead.” 

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank can accept online donations here. The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank is also asking for volunteers because the majority of their volunteer

staff at the pantries they service are retirees. They are asking anyone who might have time and

who are healthy to volunteer as need arises.

Meanwhile, Early’s staff are prepared for school to be out for longer than any typical break – and they are bracing for the long haul, however long it takes. 

“Even in this time of social distancing, the emotional connection between our school staff and students is evident,” Early said. “We look forward to the time when we can eat and chat and do activities together again. Until then, we’ll continue to provide meals and encouragement to our kids in a way that just looks a bit different.”

Assistant editor Randi B. Hagi contributed to this report.

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