As the food services supervisor for Shenandoah County Public Schools, feeding children is an everyday job for Beverly Polk. Never in over three decades in that position has she been tasked with helping make sure the area’s children receive the sustenance they need during a global pandemic.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 prompted the closure of Shenandoah County schools last month, Polk has led a team of school staff and volunteers that is providing meals to students who, under normal circumstances, would have been receiving breakfast and lunch during a typical school day.
The pandemic has brought with it a strain on the economy and placed a financial burden on many, and for some families, the meals provided from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each weekday at the three county middle schools by Polk and her staff are vital.
According to a news release from county schools Superintendent Mark Johnston, the county school division is providing over 1,200 meals daily to students.
“It’s quite heartwarming to see what we are doing and how we are helping folks,” Polk said recently. “I had one lady tell me last week, I was getting ready to leave one school and head to another school and she said ‘Mrs. Polk, if it wouldn’t be for what you’re doing, I would not be able to feed my children.’ And that is most heartwarming when you hear stories like that and you know you’re helping someone. That’s what we’re all about, helping our neighbors.”
Polk’s efforts in leading the meals program for county students caught the attention of the Virginia Department of Education School Nutrition Program, which recently named the 79-year-old Polk, who is wrapping up her 54th year in the Shenandoah County school system, a “School Meal Hero.”
“SCPS is blessed to have employees as dedicated as Bev Polk,” Johnston said in a written statement. “She would be the first to note that the success of our food services program, particularly during this crisis, is a testament to the dedication and compassion of her staff. We truly are blessed.”
Indeed, Polk said the staff that was assembled to build up and maintain the meals program has worked well together, adding that without them, “I could not have done what I’m doing.”
When Shenandoah County schools closed on March 13, Polk said she needed to have the meals program organized and up and running the following week. She chose the county’s three middle schools – North Fork, Peter Muhlenberg and Signal Knob – as the distribution locations because their loading docks made it easier to maintain social distancing during pickup, she said, and set about arranging the food and selecting the staff members that would work at each location.
The news release listed food service staff members from North Fork: Kathy Wills, Robbin Lawrence, Brenda Mason and Vanessa Souder; Peter Muhlenberg: Judy Taylor, Judy Funkhouser, Cindy Sager, Viola Shipp and Carolyn Tusing; and Signal Knob: Candy Dispanet, Kathy Smith, Jane Plaugher and Chanda Wilkins, who “rose to the occasion,” according to Polk.
Polk added that soon after the meals program got underway, she had people – including teachers in the Shenandoah County Education Association – who volunteered to be delivery drivers.
“We still have a lot of that going on. We have folks that are delivering to students that were not able to come in for a meal, come in to pick up their meal,” Polk said. “That’s worked out very well.”
Polk noted that the school division provides a similar meals program every summer, so she already had an idea of what it would take to implement one during the pandemic.
She did face a new challenge at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, however, when milk was hard to come by as the dairy that supplies the division shut down some of their lines, Polk said. Since the elementary, middle and high schools are all centralized on the northern, central and southern campuses, Polk said she was able to gather up the milk left in the coolers at the surrounding schools and transport them to each of the three middle schools. Polk did the same with the shipment of fresh produce the division received shortly before schools were shut down.
“Things really just fell into place,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, Polk and her staff were distributing about 200 meals per day, but that number reached 1,364 on April 24, what was then a new high since the start of the pandemic, according to the news release. That included 558 meals distributed at Peter Muhlenberg, 510 at North Fork and 296 at Signal Knob.
Polk noted that in her role as the food services supervisor during normal times, she spends mornings and evenings in the office but is out with the food service staff, primarily giving directions, most of the day. While her role remains the same in that regard, Polk’s position certainly carries more weight now as she helps provide such a vital day-to-day service during the pandemic.
“I’m 79 and out there on the front lines every day,” Polk said.