PUSD goes the extra miles for rural schools

Porterville Unified began its school closures by driving more than 150 miles round trip to delivery meals to rural schools

By Reggie Ellis

PORTERVILLE – For the last week and a half, four cargo vans bearing the PUSD logo back into the Central Kitchen loading dock of Porterville Unified School District each morning. A crew of workers fill 20 large cardboard boxes with lunch and breakfast food before finishing the order for the rest of the day. Four pairs of PUSD transportation workers then load the boxes into vans and depart in every direction to deliver meals to students living in rural communities surrounding Porterville. In all, the vans drive a collective roundtrip of 150 miles every morning, no small feat for a district that isn’t even the largest in California’s seventh largest county geographically. 

“It’s one of the reasons I love working for this district,” said Jason Pommier, public information officer for Porterville Unified. “They have great leadership and vision and are always trying to go the extra mile.”

When Porterville Unified announced on March 20 that it would officially close its schools beginning on March 23, the district immediately announced its plans to prepare enough meals to feed its more than 14,000 students. PUSD began offering “Grab-N-Go” meals from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays at every elementary, middle, and high school campus for children ages 1-18. Each location offered both drive-thru and walk-up stations providing a lunch and a breakfast for the next morning. 

As the largest school district in the southeastern county, a series of smaller school districts followed suit, including Burton, Ducor Union, Pleasant View Elementary, Richgrove Elementary, Springville Union, Strathmore Union, Sunnyside, Terra Bella Union and Woodville Union. Burton, a district of about 5,000 students, was able to get its meal program up and running the next day, but other districts didn’t have the stock or staff to ramp up its kitchens. Instead of forcing those districts to find the means to provide meals, PUSD decided to create six rural routes to deliver food to its 11 feeder elementary school districts, including California Hot Springs and the Tule River Indian Reservation. 

“That’s one of the reasons we waited to announce when we would be closing because we needed to be sure we could feed all of our students, including those from surrounding districts who won’t attend school in town until they reach high school,” Pommier said.

Paul Alderete, assistant director of student nutrition for PUSD, said the initial van routes were as follows:

  • Route 1 (52 miles round trip) arrived at the corner of Yokohl Valley Drive and Balch Park Road in Springville at 10:30 a.m. and ended the route at 11:50 a.m. at the River Island Country Club parking lot before heading back to Porterville.
  • Route 2 (26 miles round trip) arrived as the Future Ready Lab on Success Valley Drive before heading to Success Market and Eagles Nest campground before ending at poplar at 11:15 a.m.
  • Route 3 (42 miles round trip) headed south to Richgrove and Ducor near the Tulare-Kern County line before heading back.
  • Route 4 (20 miles round trip) trekked to Terra Bella and back. 
  • Route 5 (24 miles round trip) went to Woodville and back. 
  • Route 6 (16 miles round trip) proceeded to Poplar before returning to Porterville. 

Over the course of last week, Alderete said several of the smaller districts are now providing their enrollment with their own meals, but that didn’t stop the number of meals Porterville prepared from climbing. After cutting the routes to just four – Springville, Poplar, Richgrove and Ducor – the district still topped the 17,000 mark on Monday. That’s still less than the 21,000 meals it makes during a regular school day at its 23 campuses, but it takes a lot longer to prepare.

“It takes longer because they need to be packaged to go,” Alderete said. “We can make more meals faster without the packaging.”

In accordance with state guidelines, each child receiving a lunch must be present in order to pick up at either the schools sites or on the rural routes. The district also noted that children need to eat their meal or refrigerate them within 30 minutes of pickup. This includes refrigerating breakfast meals for the following day.

For information about outlying pickup locations, call the transportation department at 559-782-7092.
Meals for students with special dietary needs are available at Student Nutrition Services located at 900 W. Pioneer Ave., between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., Monday-Friday or contact them at 559-782-7062. For nutrition questions, please call Student Nutrition Services at 559-782-7062.

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