Meet Ethan Zhang, one of the 10 outstanding kids selected to be a TFK Kid Reporter this school year. Ethan is 9 years old and lives in McLean, Virginia. He loves realistic fiction books, hates movie spoilers, and hopes to be a writer or an athlete when he grows up.
Finalists in the TFK Kid Reporter contest were judged on a number of factors. One of their assignments was to write an article about a hometown hero. Ethan’s story is about Maria Perrone, the leader of a program that serves healthy meals to kids in Fairfax County, Virginia. You can read it below.
It’s 9:50 a.m. on July 22, 2021. Outside Shrevewood Elementary School, in Falls Church, Virginia, a school bus pulls over. A boy heads to its rear door, where he is handed two heavy, chilled bags. Inside is a week's worth of milk, fresh apples and oranges, muffins, burgers, and pizzas.
This is not your regular school bus—after all, it’s summer break. But every day, 10 buses like this one travel to families in the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) system to drop off food. These vehicles are nicknamed Meal Kit Buses. They are part of the FCPS free grab-and-go meal program. The person leading the program is Maria Perrone. Her mission: serving healthy meals.
Giving good food to kids in one of the nation’s largest school systems is a big task. “About 60,000 [students in the county] are eligible for free and reduced-price meals,” Perrone told TIME for Kids. Addressing food insecurity has been Perrone’s priority during her 15 years in food services. It has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perrone and her team, who have been “the boots on the ground” as she puts it, are working nonstop. Meal distribution by bus started on the first day that the county’s schools closed because of COVID-19: March 13, 2020. To cover the county’s 400 square miles, 418 bus stops and 120 meal distribution sites were set up.
Perrone begins her workday at 5 a.m. She spends a lot of her time responding to unknowns—such as unanticipated food and staff shortages, two particular challenges this past year. “I try to be prepared for anything that could potentially not go as planned,” she says.
The result: More than 14.5 million meals have been distributed since March 2020. “Meals have been the one constant this last year,” Perrone says. This accountability is crucial during uncertain times. The meal buses serve as a lifeline for many.
For some, getting food from the Meal Kit Buses has become an event to look forward to. “I love coming here,” says the boy from earlier. “It’s like a playdate.” He smiles.
“The kids feel like they are visiting the school cafeteria even though schools are closed,” his mom adds.
Perrone’s peers recognize her efforts. Coworker Megan Mauer says that Perrone “always puts FCPS students and employees first.” And Perrone was honored by FCPS as a 2021 Outstanding Employee. The awards’ web page notes that she “strives to ensure all children receive the nourishment needed to achieve academic success.”