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Charles Rice pulled the school bus up to the stop sign on Arlington Avenue at Clarence Street in St. Paul and prepared to wait a bit if need be.

Unlike most other weekday mornings during the school year, Rice wasn’t picking up students in the predawn darkness. Instead, on this March morning in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, he was delivering a week’s worth of free meals — meals that could make the difference between hunger and health for furloughed kids.

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“It’s OK to be a little late,” said Rice, who knows most of the youngsters on his East Side route by name. “But never, ever early. We don’t want to miss anyone.”

Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, St. Paul Public Schools deliver meals by bus to their regular stops — meals any family with children can pick up, even if they don’t attend district schools.

It’s part of an expanding effort by schools and other organizations to fill the food void created for children after Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools closed because of the spread of COVID-19. For many low-income families, the food their kids get from school makes for their healthiest meals of the week, said Kevin Burns, a St. Paul district spokesman.

On this morning, at the corner of Arlington and Clarence, silhouetted by a nearby streetlight, a mother and her young son waited.

“Good morning!” Rice said as Dave Vibar, a school district official riding with Rice, handed them a box containing five breakfasts and five lunches, along with several cartons of milk. “Take care, buddy.”

In its first week of bus deliveries last week, St. Paul distributed more than 68,000 meals, Burns said. This week, officials expected that number to hit 90,000. Deliveries will continue for as long as children are kept out of school, officials said.

In Minneapolis, starting Monday, families with children will be able to pick up boxes containing 10 meals per student for the week. Meals will be provided at 50 designated sites, as the district transitions from daily to weekly availability. And about half the state’s school districts have reported serving more than 550,000 meals to schoolkids over five days last week, according to the state Department of Education.

A partnership between the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities and the Sheridan Story, a nonprofit that works to fight child hunger, started providing more than 40,000 free meals at 26 YMCA locations earlier this week. The organization also is working with 31 school districts in Minnesota and western Wisconsin to deliver food at designated sites.

“When the schools close, where do the kids go?” Sheridan Story Executive Director Rob Williams said of linking with the Y.

The meal deliveries have been crucial for parents such as Alex Caroon, of Minneapolis, who hasn’t worked since March 13, when the kitchen where she works at Ameriprise Financial headquarters closed. She said she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to return to her job.

For the past week, Caroon has been taking three of her children — ages 6, 9 and 10 — to Bethune Elementary for meals. The trip has an added bonus, too — the kids are more than happy to escape the family’s duplex and see other youngsters when they pick up the meals.

“It has meant a lot for us,” said Caroon, who added that without the lunch option, she’d be stressed about finding ways to feed her children. “I’m so thankful for the staff [doing] this.”

In St. Paul, the school buses follow their regular schedules and routes — elementary schools on Wednesday, middle schools on Thursday and high schools on Friday. Meal boxes are handed to any family with children who show up at the bus stop in time. Those who don’t make it to the stop can pick up meals later in the morning at several schools around town.

On Wednesday, Rice, a retired registered nurse whose East Side bus route picks up students for Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary, carried 10 boxes of food, a backup box holding 10 smaller bags of food and small cartons of milk for anyone who wanted some. If he runs out of boxes, he hands out bags. If he runs out of bags, he gives parents a card directing them to where they can pick up meals.

About a third of the folks who have taken meals the past few weeks aren’t “his” families, Rice said.

“And that’s great,” he said.

But the second-year bus driver said he misses his usual riders. He loves the energy the children bring to the bus each day.

At another stop, a mother shared the sentiment.

“I miss you guys!” she said to Rice as he opened the bus door.

“Say ‘hi’ to Leo,” Rice said, as Vibar handed the woman a meal box and milk before Rice started for the next stop.

“The goal here isn’t just to deliver food,” he said. “It’s to make a positive presence in St. Paul.”

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.