11:15 a.m.: Avery Parsons Elementary School, Buena Vista

Jan Wondra, Ark Valley Voice – arkvalleyvoice.com

The vehicles pulled into the parking lot on the west side of the school. 

Michelle Cunningham was there in a surgical mask and gloves, greeting parents and students by name and giving them thumbs-up signs and smiles in lieu of high-fives and hugs. 

The school counselor has been struck by the volume of families showing up for free meals. Though nearly one-third of the school district’s roughly 1,100 students are eligible for government-subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, only about 40 children a day typically take advantage, she said. Now the district is handing out 400 meals a day, she said. 

“As counselors, we know brains work best when physiological needs are met,” Cunningham said. “Its benefits go beyond food. I’m out where I connect with families. We give them a warm smile, a ‘How are things going?’… It’s a highlight of the kids’ day — a daily field trip to go get your lunch! This check-in connection can make it easier for them to ask for help.”

In communities across the country, school buildings closed for learning remain open for meal distribution, extending a social safety net during the crisis. That holds true in Buena Vista, a tourism-dependent community set amid the majestic Collegiate Peaks.

With retailers, restaurants, and other small businesses closed, hundreds of families are out of work. Many just received their last paychecks. The virus caused the cancellation of a summer whitewater festival in nearby Salida, part of a $75 million rafting season for the local economy. 

Even so, Cunningham said she is proud of how the community has rallied. 

“The school board, the business owners, the community leaders, the churches, the school’s lunch ladies … Everyone is stepping up in so many ways to support each other.”