When West Virginia’s state parks closed down during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, some of the parks’ kitchen staffs got really, really busy.
From early April until the school year ended in early June, personnel at six parks prepared 200,000 meals for students forced to stay at home due to school closures.
“In 31 years with the park system, I’m not sure I’ve been involved with anything I’m more proud of,” said Brad Reed, the state’s parks chief.
“It was a massive undertaking, but our people in the field made it happen at an unbelievable level. I can’t say enough about our staff.”
Gov. Jim Justice ordered schools to close on March 13 and ordered park lodges to close on March 20. Not long after, Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby contacted Reed with an idea.
“She called and said she was looking for a way to take care of the school lunch program,” Reed recalled. “She thought of us and our restaurant staffs. We figured out how to do it, then put it into place.”
Reed said the parks set up reimbursement programs with their counties’ school systems.
“In some places, we bought more of the food, and in other places the school system bought most of it,” he explained. “We set the whole thing up so both parties would break even.”
Kitchen staffs at Cacapon, Canaan Valley, Chief Logan, Pipestem, Stonewall Jackson and Twin Falls took up the challenge, assembling thousands of lunches a week.
Dee Pack, supervisor at the Chief Logan Lodge and Conference Center, said social distancing under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines restricted each staff to no more than 10 people at a time.
“It was challenging, it was hectic, and it was hard,” Pack said. “But it was for the kids, so we were more than happy to do it.”
At Chief Logan, that meant preparing an average of 3,400 packages a week, each containing five breakfasts and five lunches.
“It was an unbelievable amount of work,” Pack said. “In a week when we provided 3,600 packages, we made 18,000 sandwiches.”
In addition to ham and turkey sandwiches, the packets contained chicken tenders, pepperoni rolls, whole-grain corn dogs, juice boxes, cereal, chips, celery sticks, carrot sticks, apples, oranges and, as Pack put it, “Whatever else the food truck brought.”
The Chief Logan staff rented a refrigerated truck to store the meals until they could be distributed. Pack said volunteers from local churches and fire departments delivered the meals. Some deliveries, she said, were made by school bus drivers who volunteered for the duty.
“We had people calling and asking if they could come to pick the lunches up, but due to the guidelines, parents weren’t allowed to pick up directly from us,” she added.
Some of the other parks produced even more lunches than Chief Logan. Cacapon, for example, produced 6,000 meal packages a week for students in Morgan County. Pipestem Resort churned out 8,500 a week.
Reed said it made perfect sense for park’s restaurant staffs to participate in the effort.
“Our facilities were shut down, so why not?” he said. “We consider ourselves to be a public service, and this allowed us to do something for the community.”
The impromptu program closed down at the end of the school year, just as park lodges and restaurants reopened to the public. After nine weeks of hectic activity, kitchen staffs have started getting back to normal.
Well, sort of.
For those who spent all that time up to their elbows in the frantic preparation effort, some food items have lost their appeal.
“By the end,” Pack said with a laugh, “we were telling each other we’d never eat ham or turkey sandwiches again.”