An assembly line of volunteers took over the PB&J Fund’s office on East Market Street to fill hundreds of brown bags with a sandwich and assortment of snacks that were later delivered to hundreds of Charlottesville children Monday — the first day of statewide school closures in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The meals were handed out at Westhaven, Friendship Court and other locations Monday. PB&J also bought lunch for children in Southwood Mobile Home Park and Park’s Edge apartments and plans to continue providing food to children while schools are shut down.
While school officials are planning to help students continue learning over the next several weeks, the priority Monday was making sure children get fed, especially those who rely on the schools for breakfast and lunch during the week. Local school systems will take over meal delivery starting Tuesday.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all public schools to close for two weeks starting Monday as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state and nation continued to climb.
Nearly 2,000 Charlottesville students and 4,200 Albemarle students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
Charlottesville City Schools will hand out breakfast and lunch bags at 11 sites from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays to children 18 and younger, a free service that will continue throughout the closure. Parents don’t need to be present for their child to receive a bag. Information about the sites and meals is available at charlottesvilleschools.org/food.
The Albemarle County school division will distribute meals from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays in the parking lots of six schools: Albemarle, Monticello and Western Albemarle High schools; Sutherland and Walton Middle schools; and Woodbrook Elementary School. More information is available at www.k12albemarle.org/acps/division/Pages/COVID-19.aspx.
PB&J worked with Charlottesville parent-teacher organizations to organize food donations and marshal volunteers. Monday morning, community members continued to bring in snacks and fruits by the box and grocery bag even as food items were piled high.
“We have more food than we know what to do with,” said Alex London-Gross, executive director of the PB&J Fund, while organizing boxes to be filled with lunch packs.
The nonprofit typically provides cooking classes to local children during the school day and after school.
London-Gross said the organization is planning to bag up meals indefinitely.
“I would say traditional PB&J programming has ceased,” she said. “We are trying to be nimble and responsive. We will be doing this as long as we feel like the community needs it.”
Jen Rubenstein, a professor at the University of Virginia and parent of a second-grader at Clark Elementary in the city, manned a snack station and was unwrapping boxes of goldfish crackers.
Over the weekend, she worried about how much to let her daughter play with her friends and then slowly breaking the news to her that life is going to be different.
“I told her, lots of grown-ups are trying to keep other grown-ups safe,” she said. “... We want them to feel safe and secure, but she is clearly noticing things are different.”
The Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions have provided resources on their respective websites about how to talk with children about the outbreak.
Cristelle Koerper, parent of a first-grader at Clark, packed up boxes of the lunch bags Monday. During the closure, she said she wants to maintain a routine for her children, but she’s still figuring out exactly what to do.
“It’s going to be a growth experience for not just kids but also for parents,” she said.
On Monday morning, some volunteers were turned away to allow for distance among those inside the workspace. Experts have advised that communities practice social distancing in response to the pandemic.
London-Gross said the organization will have a need for volunteers later in the week and while schools are closed. Opportunities to volunteer will be posted on PB&J’s Facebook page. On Friday, she anticipates the organization will hand out small bags of food for families for the weekend.
“All the financial contributions we have received, all the food, we will find a way to get it out to the community,” she said.
London-Gross said she was humbled and overwhelmed by the community’s response to the call for donations and volunteers. By Monday afternoon, PB&J put a temporary hold on food donations to regroup and plan next steps.
“I think this is what it really means for us to be a community — to turn up in times of need and to be thinking about other people and the people who are going to be put in really challenging financial situations about deciding to pay their electricity bill or put food on the table,” she said. “We’re really grateful that the community has turned out in such an incredible way.”