The Albemarle county school system has been providing free meal services to families in need since the school closure began in March, offering breakfasts and lunches at over 20 different sites around the county. The main distribution site for western district schools is Western Albemarle High School, where Rich McLernan, the school’s cafeteria manager since 2006, helms a staff of three to serve meals five days a week.
“I thought the county did an excellent job of sending word out to the community about this program,” said McLernan. “On our first day we had about 70 to 80 cars, and we’ve steadily increased as people found about it. Of course, it was chaos at first while we were ironing the kinks out, and every time you asked a question it just created more questions, but we didn’t stress out about it. Now it’s very smooth.”
Between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. each weekday, drivers pull up to the WAHS front entrance and tell a “runner” how many servings they need, and the cafeteria crew, masked and gloved, passes the bundled meals and beverages through the car window in a quick, convenient transfer. “I’m happy if we serve 250 or so people a day here,” said McLernan. “It’s been steady since March.” McLernan’s wife Karen takes another 35 to 40 meals via school bus out to a second location in Crozet Park from 11 to 11:30 a.m. to reach local residents who may not wish to drive.
“During the school year we do what’s called ‘offer versus serve,’ where students can choose what they want from the regular menu or our specialty lines like taco and burrito bars,” said McLernan, “but here we are doing ‘serve versus offer’ to keep it simple.” Breakfasts contain a grain, a half-cup of fruit, and dairy, and lunches feature an entrée such as ham and cheese or turkey sandwiches or a chicken patty sandwich that can be heated up at home. “We sometimes put chips in if we have them, but of course they don’t count for nutrition purposes,” he said. Everyone gets milk.
The crew arrives at around 7 a.m. each day to assemble the items and put them in individual plastic bags. They set up tables outside at 10:30 a.m. to be ready, rain or shine. Heather does the breakfasts, Emily handles lunches, and Wendy cuts and sorts the fruits and vegetables into the many, many little cups. Wendy is the cafeteria manager at Broadus Wood Elementary in Earlysville, but is lending a hand at WAHS as Broadus Wood is not a distribution center.
“We’re trying to use up all the items from the various schools in the area, especially Brownsville and Henley since they’re so close,” said McLernan. “I’ve gone into their storerooms and freezers and fridges to pull out inventory and we gave out all the fresh stuff right away.” McLernan keeps track of Western’s inventory and places orders with suppliers just as he would during the school year. The school division has announced that the program will be extended through at least June 30; it was granted a waiver to allow it to continue until August 31 if necessary.
McLernan is happy to keep going with the service, as it allows him to do what he loves—feeding kids and families. “I think it’s a really good thing that we’re doing,” he said. “We’re taking care of people in need, and as long as we’re needed, we’ll be here.”
Hats off to the grads
In lieu of its usual end-of-year graduation ceremonies, Western Albemarle High School devised alternative ways to honor its seniors in May while still holding on to some beloved traditions. Principal Pat McLaughlin described how WAHS pulled it off while maintaining social distance.
“For the regalia pickup, we split the students up by alphabet and had 30 kids per hour pull up to the school to give them their caps and gowns,” said McLaughlin. “We also gave them a yard sign that said ‘WAHS, we are proud of our senior’ and a T-shirt with a Western slogan on the front and all of the kids’ names on back. The whole thing was a drive-thru pickup and all touch-free.” Beginning on Saturday, May 16, students came to WAHS again during individual time slots they had signed up for online, this time in full regalia and with their families.
“We had 10 kids per hour come up to school in their cap and gown, where we had a tent on a stage with a podium,” said McLaughlin. “We had a photographer there, and I handed the students their diploma cover. We took pictures while I stood at an appropriate distance, and students could have photos taken with their families as well. The graduation photos will be sent to the students to keep, and the photographer will work with a videographer to turn the event into virtual online ceremony where we run through the traditional program with a welcome from me, words from the Superintendent, words from the School Board chair, senior awards, and student speeches.”
The plan is for the virtual ceremony video to be available on June 15 via the school’s website. “We also usually have valediction ceremony where we give out other awards and a slide show for the valediction, as well as underclass awards, and we’re doing something similar to that as well,” said McLaughlin. “We will put everything up there and send out links.”
The rolling graduation ceremonies took place over seven days for five hours per day, and McLaughlin and crew enjoyed all 35 hours of the event. “I know this is not a perfect substitute for graduation by any means, but hopefully sometime down the road we might be able to have additional celebrations because we know the students want to be with their friends.”