Members of the salvation Army of Omaha hand out bags of food to cars during a weekly mobile pantry at Jefferson Elementary on Monday, March 23. Photo by Chris Bowling.
By Chris Bowling

Sarah Comer walked backward across the blacktop, her arms waving the Toyota Camry forward like a plane on a tarmac.

“Come on, come come on,” she said as she neared a yellow Penske moving van loaded with 200 bags of food outside Jefferson Elementary Monday afternoon. “Keep coming.”

Volunteers in red aprons and black vinyl gloves appeared at the Camry’s open passenger side window, asking how many kids the driver had and where to put the groceries. After about 30 seconds, the Camry drove out of the parking lot with three bags, each containing enough for ten meals.

That’s the process for the grab-and-go pantry, a response started last week and led by Food Bank for the Heartland to feed kids missing out on lunch as schools closed to stymie the spread of Covid-19.

These weekly pantries at 13 Omaha Public School locations—available to all kids not just OPS students—will provide 2,600 bags of food containing yogurt cups, milks, hoagie buns and produce like carrots and apples, said Comer assistant director of network compliance and distribution with the food bank.

But even though volunteers came with a moving van of full food, many still left empty handed.

“We try to provide the best we can, but we have been running out,” Comer said.

Fifteen minutes before the mobile pantry’s start at 3 p.m, a line already stretched half a mile past the pick-up point at Jefferson Elementary on 42nd and Vinton streets to the ramp of the interstate. About 70 cars inched and idled as they waited for food to feed their kids who are missing lunches due to school closures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

After 30 minutes of the pantry’s two-hour allotted time, the van was empty. The line of cars, still stretching to the interstate, started to make u-turns while volunteers handed card stock resources guides to the ones who just missed out.

Monday’s drive up pantry has been common for other pantries so far, and is emblematic of a community adapting quickly to a disrupted community’s growing needs, chief among them food.

And that’s a big population to serve especially among school kids. In OPS, 74.9 percent of students, more than 40,000 kids, rely on free or reduced lunch. Across Douglas and Sarpy counties, about 44 percent rely on those services.

It’s hard to see kids through the car windows leaving without bagged food. But Comer said 200 bags is the rate set by their provider, Westside Nutrition Services, to keep service sustainable. 

Right now, it’s the most the food bank and their community partners, like the Salvation Army of Omaha which provided volunteers on Monday, can do to respond to such a dynamic crisis.

“It’s been crazy,” she said. “We’ve been trying to plan things as quickly as possible while trying to keep people safe. So it’s been busy.”

And they’re not the only ones trying to adapt.

Down the street a line of about 10 people held handmade signs displaying messages written in marker ranging from “Wash your hands!” to “We miss you!” 

As cars pass the teachers of Jefferson Elementary smile, wave and shout out students by name.

“We need them to know that even though we’re not together, we’re always there to support them,” said Jennifer Schlapia, principal of Jefferson Elementary. “Whether it’s through a computer screen or face to face.”

The plan came together hours beforehand as teachers discussed the mobile pantry. 

The contents of food bags handed out by volunteers at Jefferson Elementary on March 23, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

As teachers send off take-home learning packets and move communication from the classroom to the computer, Schlapia said her teachers are worried about how this time apart will affect the relationships they’ve built. Bringing signs and showing they’re still here seemed like the best way to reach a large group of students at once, even if it’s at a distance and through a rolled-up car window.

For Ashley Bunce, a sixth grade writing and social studies teacher, doing this seemed like the only solution she had available in what’s been a surreal, life-altering past week.

“I was OK-ish Monday and Tuesday,” she said of last week. “On Wednesday I had a breakdown. I was crying. It’s not just a routine, this is our livelihood. This is what makes me feel worth it. It makes me feel worth it to be here.”

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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