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Yellow as a No. 2 pencil, a school bus rolls up and down Eddystone’s working-class streets one gray morning.
It’s an odd sight in the time of COVID-19. Many of the kids in the Ridley School District, which includes about 10 communities, including Eddystone, are learning remotely these days.
Turns out, driver Donna Sullivan has but one passenger: Joanne Coskey, a 53-year-old district kitchen worker and bus aide whom everyone calls the “Energizer Bunny,” briskly delivering breakfasts and lunches to students’ homes with unflagging vigor five days a week.
“Thank you,” parents and children yell from porches and windows, but the kinetic Coskey’s already gone, bopping onto School Bus No. 39 and readying a food bundle for the next in a total of 84 stops. The bus is one of 10 delivering to 675 kids that same day.
Marrying the commitment to feed students with the desire to put pandemic-sidelined school bus drivers and aides back to work, the Ridley School District hit on a plan that helps all of them at once. The meals it dispatches run the gamut of free, reduced-price, and full-pay.
“This solves some problems,” said Mimi Barrios, district supervisor of food services. “We just wanted to assist the community.”
It’s not clear how many other school districts are currently putting their bus personnel to work delivering food, said George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, which distributes food from the federal school lunch and breakfast program to Ridley, Philadelphia, and 68 other regional districts. A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said officials don’t know whether other districts are utilizing drivers this way.
What’s certain is that the need for school meals — as well as food supplies for families and individuals throughout the area — has been exploding since the coronavirus hit and so many people have lost their jobs, Matysik said.
Share has gone from sending out 500,000 pounds of food per week regionally before the pandemic to 1.5 million pounds since, Matysik said. “We’re distributing three times the total amount of food.”
Augmenting the school meals, Matysik’s team makes available additional 35-pound boxes of food for families in need to around 30 school districts three times a week, including Ridley.
Many places such as Eddystone and other Delaware County communities haven’t had a strong need for charitable food before, Matysik said, and as a result, “historically, there haven’t been many food pantries for towns in the Ridley School District.”
But conditions have been deteriorating lately. Even before COVID-19, Delaware County’s poverty rate rose from 8.6% in 2018 to 9.9% in 2019, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau figures. That represents the largest poverty increase among the suburban counties. Local experts have been unable to explain why.
With the pandemic’s onslaught, the entire Philadelphia region can expect worsening circumstances. The national food charity Feeding America has predicted that because of the pandemic’s effect here, the rate of food insecurity — not having access to enough food for a healthy life — will have risen from 16.3% in 2018 to 21.2% by the time 2020 ends.
Coskey, a widow who lives in Tinicum, is not only a school district kitchen worker and a bus aide, but times being what they are, she also works for her sister’s cleaning company and sorts packages for UPS. She has five children and nine grandchildren.
“Delivering this food is important to me,” said Coskey. “It’s a pleasure to have them appreciating you by saying thank you. I know a lot of people struggle here.”
Linda Molette-Jones is one such person. Divorced and 63, the former convenience-store manager endured four strokes and suffers from multiple sclerosis.
She lives on Social Security disability income in a house with two 6-year-old granddaughters in elementary school and a third girl, a toddler. Molette-Jones’ son and his wife also live in the home. Molette-Jones is in charge of making sure the young students are online and learning.
The school meals that Coskey brings are vital.
“Oh, my God, the food helps a lot,” she said. “My son moves pianos, my daughter-in-law works in a courthouse. Their salaries are not the highest. They need help in order to get anywhere.
“Family is a key thing. I need to keep my sanity, and if I didn’t have the kids, I’d be depressed and never move around.”
Marie Albrand also looks forward to Coskey’s quick-hit visits.
“Phenomenal school district, guys!” she yells to Coskey and Sullivan.
Albrand, a 59-year-old nurse, is divorced and raising her three grandsons, ages 8, 9, and 14, on her own. To make sure the boys aren’t distracted, she tapes a note to her front door that reads, “School is in session 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.”
Filled with praise for those who help, Albrand singled out Coskey and Sullivan: “Those ladies hustle door to door to make sure kids have what they need. Their bringing meals takes the pressure off us.
“This district goes above and beyond.”
That’s how Timothy Richards, a 45-year-old delivery driver and father of a sixth grader, sees it.
“They come every day,” he said, shaking his head in admiration. “And my son is one of those guys who eats everything, so it’s always great.”
The food bundle, which changes, included a whole-grain cinnamon bun with 1% milk for breakfast, along with a lunch of chicken nuggets, a whole-grain pretzel stick, french fries, a fruit cup, and 1% chocolate milk.
By Oct. 13, the Ridley district’s 5,600 students are scheduled to return to their nine schools at least part of the time, Barrios said. She added that the bus food-delivery model may well continue in some form.
“As long as there’s COVID-19,” she said, “we’ll make sure to have some delivery component.”
That sounds fine to Coskey: “This pandemic is hard on everyone. I hope we can keep helping.”