Every Tuesday and Wednesday for around the past month, Sherita Cobb has hit the ground running as she makes her weekly trip to Sam’s Club to purchase huge quantities of food that will be taken to the Orange County Welcome Center where it will be sorted, bagged or boxed, and distributed to food delivery locations in the community.
But lately, Cobb, who is Director of Student Support Services at Orange County Schools, is hitting the ground hobbling.
“I have plantar fasciitis,” she said. “I have to wear this boot for about three more weeks.”
However, Cobb is hardly slowing down. Each Tuesday, Cobb is joined by two social workers for a trip to Sam’s Club where they shop for food items in bulk. The food is loaded into a school bus and taken back to the Welcome Center where it is unloaded and sorted into stations of staple food items.
“Up until more recently, we were just using my car and another staff person’s car to get the food,” Cobb said. “Then I got this lovely cast, so now I can’t drive. So then the transportation director helped me out by bringing a bus. Now we take the bus to Sam’s and load up and then come back here and unload.”
On Wednesdays, volunteer Student Resource Officers and other members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office arrive to fill bags and boxes for distribution.
“They have developed a system,” Cobb said. “They have carts and buggies and they just go around like they’re shopping. They fill the bags. We section them off, we divide it up, and 10 or 12 go to each site. The SROs load them into their cars and take them to the respective Food Service Workers and nutrition workers who are handing out food at those locations.”
Once the SROs and other volunteers have headed out to their food distribution locations, Cobb and the social workers fill a bus with boxes and bags full of meals to make deliveries to two locations.
In approximately six weeks, Cobb has spearheaded an effort that has raised more than $10,000 and distributed more than 22,000 lunch and breakfast combinations.
Much of the money has been raised through the K-12 Payment Donation portal that can be accessed through the Orange County Schools’ website. Cobb said that is the preferred method for donations as it allows she and her volunteers to buy food in bulk. Also, by purchasing the food themselves, there is no need to worry about checking expiration dates.
Food donations are accepted, though. “If people want to make a food donation, we’re accepting those as well,” Cobb said. “Some people bring nonperishable food items that maybe they purchased at Sam’s and they bought too much. Or they go out and buy $40 or $50 worth of food and they want to bring that here to the Welcome Center. I’m here Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I can accept donations anytime, if they call one of our numbers on the website, someone can be here to accept that food.”
When Orange County Schools announced that it would be closing schools on March 13 in hopes of stemming the spread of COVID-19, the district knew it would have to create a means with which to meet the needs of students who received free or reduced cost meals through the schools.
Meal pick up sites were established throughout the county where families could receive a free meal for each student. But the school district began to see the need for food growing beyond the families whose needs they were already aware.
That is when Cobb stepped it up.
“We decided we were going to do what we could to support those families that maybe weren’t food insecure before, but are now because of all that has happened with regard to the coronavirus,” Cobb said. “Being out of work, having kids at home all day, everyday. It’s tough. So we said, ‘Let’s do this,’ so we began doing this. We’ve had tremendous support from our student resource officers, from the OCSO, teachers, principals. They come in and volunteer from time to time. Some local church members. We don’t allow too many because we’re following social distance rules. We limit who and how many just so we can make sure that everybody is safe. We’ve had a great turnout and we are very appreciative of all that’s happened.
“What we’re doing here is giving them — we hope — a couple of days worth of meals to sustain them until the next week. We want to help. We know they’re already stretched. So, we’re hoping to add just a little bit to help them out,” she said.
On this Wednesday, about a dozen volunteers are on hand to fill bags. Tables are arranged in a giant horseshoe-shape. Staple foods, like pastas, rice and canned goods are at the beginning, with fresh vegetables and fruits toward the end.
Sherita Cobb is there, talking with her daughter, a sixth grader who volunteered to help her mom.
“Over here you see cabbage, but before the cabbage was here we were doing snack bags for the kids,” Cobb said. “Kids want candy, they want potato chips. We will give them that. The fruit and vegetables and all of the fresh produce is on this wall. The staples are all around, and we also do oatmeal and breakfast choices. All of that is over this way.”
Cobb can’t say enough about how the community has stepped up with donations.
“Weaver Street Market has been a great donation provider. You see the cans of tomato sauce and the noodles and the peanut butter. They’ve given us cookies. Just so much stuff. More than I can even name. That has sustained us so that all we have to buy are the other staples, like vegetables, canned tuna, chicken. We have been and continue to work with TABLE as it has been and continues to support our schools as it supports food-insecure families at the specific school level. We also receive massive support from the OCSO.”
A group of SROs, each with face masks and blue gloves, push carts in a counter-clockwise direction around the tables, collecting the food in bags. The conversation is light and jovial.
Melanie VonBraunsberg is helping gather the filled bags of food and placing them in boxes to be delivered. VonBraunsberg, known to her students as Ms. VonB, is a CTE teacher at A. L. Stanback Middle School, and a regular volunteer with the food operation at the Welcome Center.
“I have to make sure I’m helping,” VonBraunsberg said. “I can’t stay home knowing help is needed.”
Cobb, who has been with Orange County Schools since 2016, said she and the district will continue these efforts for the foreseeable future, as long as donations are made and there is a need. It’s an exhausting job, but one she volunteered for.
“I think I volunteered myself,” she said with a smile. “I think I was in a conversation about it and I said, ‘Yeah, I can look into it,’ and then we just went from there. So, we just kept doing it, supporting our kids. I felt like this is where it should be, with Student Support Services.”
The feedback she and the volunteers receive reveals the continued need and the appreciation.
“The people are very appreciative. They’re very thankful. They need it, they want it. All we’ve gotten back is good reviews.
“We are really excited to be able to do this and be able to help families, because we know this is a new thing,” Cobb said. “This is a different time. We just want to make sure that we are helping. This is our community. These are our children. We want to make sure we support them.”