CLAIRFIELD, Tenn. (WATE) – As COVID-19 continues to grip the state, area schools are doing all they can to ensure access to food for children who rely on the federal nutrition safety net.

Every Thursday, Clairfield Elementary School serves as the hub of distributing meals to this area’s school-aged children. In the last eight weeks, more than 11,000 meals have been picked up by parents and grandparents in the remote mountain community.

“It would be a little hard (to make it without this food distribution),” Ellis Harfield said. “There are a lot of families up here who can’t make it without it.”

Clairfield Elementary is one of Claiborne County’s smallest schools. The school system has more than 4,000 enrolled students and in the last eight weeks, more than 264,000 meals have been handed out throughout the county.

Handing out the food are school cafeteria workers and school aides. Since classes were canceled in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, the school’s well-operated food distribution system is a lifeline to families.

“We feed approximately 1,400 meals a week,” Clairfield Elementary principal Tom Zachary said. “We only have about 70 students here. As you see, they come in steady. We have it set up where we can practice social distancing. We know about everybody here.

“When we see their vehicle coming across the track, we say, ‘oh, that is so-and-so.’ They get their box of food, carry it out, and set it on the table. Then they get out and put it in their vehicle.”

Clairfield in located in the Cumberland Mountains several miles south of the Kentucky border. The community of a little more than 1,000 people has been hard-hit by unemployment as a result of the virus. The meals program is helping to stretch tight family budgets.

“Everybody needs it. Things are tight a lot of the mines are shut down around here. A lot of jobs are shut down now,” Tim Webb, a school employee, said.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act approved March 18 by Congress authorized relief meals and granted waivers providing emergency benefits to eligible families of school-aged kids.

The meals will continue through early summer and likely beyond — possibly into July.

“The USDA has sent us a waiver for any child under the age of 18 from anywhere here in Claiborne County,” Melany Bunch, Claiborne County Schools nutrition supervisor, said. “They do not have to be enrolled in our school system. The way it works here. Each student gets seven breakfast meals and seven lunches. We are hoping that will last through the week. They’ll show up the next Thursday and do the same. This waiver is in effect through June 30.”

Dealing with the disruption of normal life because of the virus is hard enough but seeing familiar faces just once a week brings comfort and many are grateful to the staff at Clairfield Elementary for their work and devotion.

“This is a blessing. It is a great blessing all the workers at the school are a great blessing. We appreciate them beyond words. We appreciate all of you. Everything that is being done for our community, our children, it means a lot to us,” Susan Johnson said.