Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Bobby Richardson pulls his school bus up to the curb in front of the little blue house on Avondale Avenue and honks his horn. On a chilly Friday morning in late October, as he waits for the Garcias to come outside, Richardson unbuckles himself from the driver’s seat and gets to work in the rear of bus number 461.
A tall man with closely cropped hair, Richardson wears a maroon mask that matches his San Antonio ISD shirt. He takes food out of coolers and places it in white grocery bags. There are cinnamon buns, fruits, vegetables, hummus, pinto bean salad, sandwiches, milk, and juice boxes—enough food for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, plus extra for the weekend. Earlier that morning, the district’s nutrition services team had prepared and neatly packaged thousands of these meals as part of SAISD Eats, a district-wide effort to get free food into the hands of hungry children attending school remotely because of the pandemic. Set up almost overnight in March when Texas schools abruptly shut down, the program was a bus driver’s idea and relies on drivers like Richardson to make deliveries in the community. Food is also available curbside at forty schools. At its peak, in August, 170 drivers distributed 25,000 meals a day. Drivers currently deliver food to 450 bus stops across the district.
Video by Chris Beier
As Richardson is bagging the food, the screen door of the blue house opens and 4-year-old Jason steps out, followed by his great-grandmother, 85-year-old Maria Garcia, who is moving stiffly and slowly. “Grandma, don’t come down. You might fall,” Richardson calls out. “Where’s Grandpa?”
Along with her husband, Roberto, Garcia takes care of seven of their great-grandchildren, who range in age from three to eleven. They adopted three of the kids when their biological mother was forced to give them up. The other four spend weekdays with the Garcias while their mothers work.
Eventually, Roberto comes to the door, unmasked, holding the hand of 3-year-old Cassius. Roberto, also 85, has a little more spring in his step than his wife as he makes his way to the bus, where Richardson hands him bag after bag through the emergency exit.
The Garcias are retired. Roberto worked the register at SAS Shoes and, before that, did oil changes at gas stations, and Maria spent twenty years as a nurse’s aide in hospitals. They manage with Social Security benefits, Maria’s retirement pay, and adoption assistance from the state. After monthly mortgage payments on their small three-bedroom, one-bath home, and other expenses, there is little money left over at the end of each month. Both struggle with diabetes, and Roberto has suffered multiple strokes this year. COVID-19 looms on their minds.
“I tell myself we’re not gonna get sick. We’re not gonna think about that,” Maria says. “I started making little masks for all the kids. I tell myself there’s a God up there.”
During a school year that has been upended by COVID-19 and the perilous economic situation spawned by the virus, bus drivers in San Antonio and other districts across the state and nation have stepped into unusual frontline roles—as food distributors and informal social workers. At the SAISD program’s start, Katelyn Mercado, the district’s routing supervisor, identified where students were clustered, and set up ten routes with seventy stops. The delivery program has helped drivers too.
“Our drivers were asking for hours,” she said.
Richardson’s work day started at 6 a.m., with three hours of picking up students and taking them to schools in San Antonio ISD. (Thirty percent of the student body is currently attending school in-person.) Then, his second shift: over four hours, he made nine stops in the working-class, largely Hispanic neighborhoods of southeast San Antonio delivering food to families.
Most families pick up meals at their neighborhood bus stops. Richardson’s route has four of these, with other stops at individual residences. The district allows doorstep deliveries for families with special-needs children. The Garcias don’t officially qualify for a home delivery, but Richardson can’t stand the thought of two octogenarians in bad health having to leave their home. The food Richardson brings by daily helps Maria keep her focus on the children as they do their school work. Plus, he knows how much they enjoy his brief company.
“He’s a very friendly young man,” Maria says of Richardson, who is 53 years old. “We’ll be out just talking sometimes.”
Richardson’s next stop brings him to the home of Jeri Martinez, a 37-year-old single mother of six children, ages two to fifteen, three of whom have special needs. She doesn’t own a car, and depends on Richardson to bring her food.
Martinez is currently unemployed but has always struggled to cobble together funds to cover her living expenses. Before the pandemic, she made between $100 and $150 a month babysitting and cleaning a house or two a week, but she quit working altogether to take care of her kids, who are now attending school from home. Three of her children receive survivor benefits from their father, who died of cancer. She also relies on Medicaid, food stamps, and the WIC program, which her two youngest children still qualify for.
The food from the district has allowed her to spend a little bit of her own money on small indulgences that are otherwise difficult to come by. “When the pandemic started, I was coming up short, especially for snacks,” she says. “My kids like to make cookies and cake, and we didn’t have enough for that. Now once a month I buy ingredients for cakes and cookies. We don’t even have money for ice cream, sometimes.”
One out of five children in Bexar County is food insecure, lacking consistent access to healthy meals, about the same as the statewide average, with the pandemic likely increasing the rate to nearly one in three, according to the nonprofit Feeding America. And when it comes to children, research indicates that poor nutrition affects academic performance. A recent study by researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio found that food-insecure students were more likely to struggle with distance learning and be academically disengaged.
Parents like Martinez don’t need a study to understand this. “If they have their food, it keeps them focused. They’re able to continue with their classes and work,” she says.
Richardson also takes Martinez’s eight-year-old twin girls to school every day. In the past, he has delivered computers and books from the district to the children as well. A few months ago, he was also their impromptu plumber: one day the Martinez children came running out of the front door when his bus pulled up to tell him that the bathroom sink was gushing water. Martinez couldn’t afford a plumber and her landlord hadn’t sent help over, so Richardson wrapped the pipe below the basin with sheets until the water stopped gushing.
Martinez’s fifteen-year-old son, Michael, says visits from Richardson light up the household. “Me and my siblings get really excited when he comes,” Michael says. “He’s the nicest person I’ve met.”
Richardson has often had to step outside of his official duties. Recently, a mother approached him wailing. “She was just crying, like someone had passed. She just had no finances,” he says. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore. It’s just too hard too hard, too hard.’”
Richardson stood with her, held her hand, and prayed.
“I’m not supposed to, but I did. And then I went in my bag, and I blessed her with some finances,” he said. Some cash from his wallet. “I said it would get better and I told her about different programs that are out there.”
Bobby Richardson grew up poor in San Antonio’s East Side neighborhood of Jefferson Heights, the son of a single mother with six children. As one of the few Black students at St. Peter’s Prince of Apostles School in the seventies, he dealt with racism and often found himself in trouble with teachers and principals. “I understand their struggles because I’ve been in their shoes,” he says of the families he serves. “I like to have therapy sessions with my babies,” the term he uses for kids on his route. “I say, ‘Tell me if you have a problem.’”
Richardson never writes up misbehaving children on his bus. “I just try to get to the core of the problem. If you show a child love, that child will take that love and it will take them a long way. When you talk abusive that child will retaliate.” Until the district brings more students back for in-person classes, Richardson and other drivers are the only school personnel that many children regularly interact with in person. He has encountered children who are home alone when they step out to pick up food, some dressed in dirty clothes or not changed for the day, sometimes half asleep even after 10 a.m. “None of my babies are being neglected at all,” Richardson says. “The parents are doing the very best they can. No reason to be alarmed or anything, they’re just trying to stretch that dollar.”
Other drivers have similar stories. Rosie Guadarrama, a 55-year-old veteran driver, told me that on her first route, she frequently saw a little boy of about two years old at an apartment complex. She came to call him Diaper Boy. He would toddle up to her in his diaper to pick up food, and there was never a parent in sight. “He was determined to do his own thing and he didn’t want anyone to carry his food,” Guadarrama said. “Where was his mom? Where was his dad? We’d tell his sister, she was about ten, to take him straight home.”
Diaper Boy always showed up.
Over the summer, Juanita Richards, another driver, often encountered a little boy, around eight years old, who picked up meals—five of them—at one of her stops. It was a lot for him to carry.
One day, he forgot some food and Richards followed him with the rest. When she reached his front door, she was shocked by what she saw. The boy and his four brothers—all younger than him—were alone in an empty apartment, save for a blanket they were sitting on and a box TV on a small table. They were eating the school food and watching television. “I can’t ever forget that image,” she said. “Those little kids alone in that empty apartment just watching TV all day.”
Her heart heavy, she filed a report with the Department of Family and Child Services. “When I went back the next time, the kids were gone,” Richards said.
Richardson worries, too, that children aren’t doing their schoolwork, that they aren’t logging into their computers or studying. When he drops off food and meets parents, he gently pries to find out if schoolwork is getting done. “I question them. I have the tendency, because I’m concerned, to be a little overbearing. I’ll say, ‘How is so-and-so doing? Is she getting up and getting on the computer?’”
If families tell him they are having trouble logging in, he gives them the district’s number for tech support.
Even as administrators scramble to find innovative solutions such as the food delivery program, there are other glaring problems with virtual school: unstable homes, faulty internet connections, and children who just don’t show up for online school. It is, ultimately, Richardson believes, a battle against poverty, one that requires not only resource distribution but also empathy and personal attention.
“You see so much in our field and you wouldn’t believe it with us just being bus drivers,” he said.
SAISD’s food delivery service was bus driver Rosie Guadarrama’s idea. In March, she read about a school district in Washington state that had started using buses to deliver meals to children during the pandemic. She was already worried about the kids on her route. San Antonio is a low-income district—26 percent of children live in poverty and more than 90 percent come from economically disadvantaged families—that qualifies for a USDA-funded program, the Community Eligibility Provision, under which the nation’s poorest schools can provide free meals all year to every enrolled child, no application required. SAISD has been participating in the program, which launched in 2011, for seven years, but the pandemic posed logistical challenges in feeding students, as the city’s food insecurity spiked almost immediately. Back in April, just weeks after schools and most businesses shut down, 10,000 cars lined up at one San Antonio food bank and a photo of the packed parking lot went viral on social media and caught the attention of the New York Times, NPR, and other news outlets.
In March, the district’s nutrition service team mobilized rapidly to package food and set up pickup points at different schools, but Guadarrama knew from firsthand experience that many of the parents whose kids she bused to and from school didn’t have cars. They were service industry workers and laborers who walked to work or took the bus. Some of them, she knew, had likely lost their jobs as cooks and waiters and construction workers.
Guadarrama told her supervisor, Nathan Graf, about the Washington program. “Could we do this here?” she asked him. A few phone calls and 48 hours later, Graf had SAISD Eats up and running.
The district advertised SAISD Eats online, called and texted messages to parents in Spanish and English, and posted flyers. But what worked best was asking drivers to get the word out. “I’d literally go into the apartment complex and honk and honk,” Guadarrama told me. “We’d say we’re providing breakfast, lunch, and supper. We told everyone we saw.”
Within a week, she knew her regulars. She knew sibling groups. She knew parents. She knew grandparents.
Across the state, other districts also scrambled to find ways to get food to students who depend on school meals to stay healthy. In March, Dallas ISD set up a similar program in which meals were dropped off at hotels and motels housing homeless students and their families. Other districts set up grab-and-go sites at community centers and schools where families can stay in their car and have food brought to the window. In Houston, bus drivers delivered boxes of produce in May and June to more than 36,000 students at designated stops, thanks to a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Even once the pandemic subsides, there is a possibility that SAISD Eats may continue in some form, said Pedro Martinez, SAISD’s superintendent. Although he was aware of the immense food insecurity in his district pre-COVID-19, the pandemic has shown him that creative solutions can be effective. “There are good practices that will come out of COVID that we have to keep going forward,” he said.
Richardson can’t wait for the pandemic to end, for the day when all his children will be back on bus 461, sitting two or three to a row again, and he can high-five them instead of directing them toward the hand sanitizer mounted next to his driver’s seat.
In the meantime, he will keep doing all he can to reach out. In October, his bus is already decorated for the holidays. Each seat has a garland of green pine that he’s taped to the back of the seats. On the front seat, there is a box of treats he’s bought with his own money that he will distribute at the end of the day. And he’s got a pile of music CDs ready to go.
After riding with Richardson that Friday, I pay a visit to Graf, the district’s director of transportation, at his office. He’s wearing a pink mask, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and he can’t wait to show me something. “You gotta see this,” he says. “It’s so great.” Even though he’s masked, I can tell he’s smiling.
In his office, he logs into his desktop and clicks on a file. The district’s new bus safety video, updated for these times, starts. Bobby Richardson is dressed like Dracula, in all black, with a cape on, singing. He stands in front of a school bus whose wheels are covered in spider webs and that has been decorated to look like (a masked) Frankenstein.
There’s a giant spider coming out of one window and a picture of a bat on another. “I wore a mask, to avoid the COVID splash, I wore a mask,” he croons.
He walks to the side of the bus and boards it, singing in rhyme the whole time, listing out every COVID-era protocol his babies must follow.
Sindya Bhanoo is a Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow at the University of Michigan. This project was also supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.