I grew up thousands of miles from Moab, but the Grand County High School cafeteria is similar to the lunchrooms I remember from my grade school years: white linoleum floors, long white tables with seats attached, high ceilings that echo voices louder but less distinct.
Lately, instead of crowds of kids flooding into the cafeteria at the sound of a bell, school employees and volunteers are using the space to assemble hundreds of bagged breakfasts and lunches to deliver to Moab kids while classes and school activities are suspended.
I join the volunteers on Thursday mornings, coming in at 8 a.m. to a kitchen already bustling with cafeteria workers preparing the food. I wash my hands at a deep utility sink as soon as I come in the door, scrubbing with soap for a full 20 seconds; then, I grab a fresh pair of disposable food service gloves from a box and go to the lunchroom, where hundreds of open white paper bags marked ‘B’ for breakfast or ‘L’ for lunch cover the tabletops.
About 10 women are busy moving the assembly along. Some are school district employees, some are volunteers, some are teachers, some are mothers. We chat as we get into a rhythm of loading items into the bags, moving assembled meals onto carts, and setting up more bags.
One woman related how the meal delivery driver had seen her and her kids walking their dog; when they went to pick up their meals, a treat for the dog was included. Another woman said the thing she misses most about pre-COVID-19 times is just seeing people out around town. Many adults are missing their workplaces, their social events and the spontaneous way one might decide to go shopping or greet a neighbor with a handshake before the coronavirus.
Kids, too, are adjusting to a drastic change in lifestyle. During a normal weekday in a ‘normal’ year, kids would follow a familiar routine and socialize with lots of people throughout the school day. When I was in school, I don’t remember appreciating the reliability of that routine or the high population density of the classroom. Now, though, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be school-aged and to have suddenly lost the structure of school and the company of my classmates.
The meal deliveries are important to ensure kids are eating well, but parents and delivery drivers reported that the human contact and the routine of picking up the meals is just as important. One father, when he heard that I was helping assemble the meals, said his kids eagerly look forward to picking up their lunches every day. I imagine parents look forward to it, too: an event to plan the day around, when parents are suddenly responsible for managing their kids at home all day, every day.
In the cafeteria, we pack each sack with the day’s menu. For breakfast, there’s usually a single-serving package of cereal, a half-pint carton of milk, some graham crackers, and a piece of fresh fruit. For lunch, the cafeteria workers strive for variety with items like pizza slices, fresh vegetables, and chocolate milk. The items have to be nestled so that the bag doesn’t flop over and nothing punches through the paper, and the heaviest items must be placed on the bottom so nothing gets crushed—it can be a bit of a puzzle. The bags are stapled and loaded onto buses for delivery. We open a box of hundreds of blank bags and mark them with ‘B’ or ‘L’ with a black marker.
The task has a hypnotic effect, and I find myself losing the meaning of the symbol I write over and over in rapid succession. What’s the significance of this straight line with two curves? We decide to draw a smiley face next to the B on every dozen bags or so—it reminds me that these are on their way to a kid in town somewhere. Those kids will receive a balanced meal, and also the reassurance of a new routine—a new normal, at least for now.