In what used to be the cafeteria of the Newark school, boxes filled with food are piled high on every available surface. Non-perishable foods take up spare classrooms and hallways.
And every weekday, volunteers cart meals across Delaware, offering a hot meal to any child 18 and under who needs it, regardless of if they attend the school.
Amna Latif, director of Tarbiyah, oversees a team of about 150 staff and volunteers who help pull off the daily meal deliveries. She never thought it would grow to this.
At the start of the pandemic, schools quickly needed to figure out how to continue feeding kids who relied on daily school lunches. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed schools to shift to summer meal programs, Latif and her team jumped to action. Volunteers and staff members suggested neighborhoods and community centers where they knew children would need food.
Friday, March 13 was the day Gov. John Carney closed schools for two weeks.
After a weekend filing applications with the Department of Education, Tarbiyah was serving meals by Monday.
The school started with the goal of serving 1,800 meals per day.
“We were scared. Are we even going to be able to give those out? Will there be leftovers?” Latif said. “When we started, we gave out everything, and there was a need for more.”
Soon, the school was serving up to 7,000 meals daily, all reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The handful of distribution sites grew to 34 across northern Delaware, serving children in Newark, Wilmington, New Castle and as far south as Dover.
The school has since scaled back to 13 distribution sites, turning some over to school districts needing to keep school nutrition staff employed through virtual learning.
Eight months into the pandemic, Tarbiyah staff and volunteers continue to feed children who otherwise would have been forgotten by the system, targeting motels, homeless shelters and neighborhoods in need.
The food insecurity rate in Delaware is 12.6%, according to the Food Bank of Delaware. Economic fallout from the pandemic likely added 50,000 people to the 121,000 Delawareans who struggle to afford food, according to Food Bank estimates.
Food insecurity among children is even higher. Among Delaware kids, 38,680 are food insecure, that’s 19%, and higher than last year.
“I still feel we’re not reaching out to everybody. We still have a lot of children that are not being served,” Latif said. “The need is huge. Cutting off some of the hunger, giving them access to nutritious meals is our goal, it’s our purpose.”
Latif and her husband Naveed Baqir moved from Pakistan to the United States in 2003, both on scholarship to complete master’s degrees at Eastern Illinois University.
Moving to the small, majority white college town, Latif was warned that people would make fun of her niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women covering everything but their eyes.
“What we saw about the U.S. was mostly in movies, just like anybody over here would learn about Muslim culture through the media,” she said.
Instead, Latif and Baqir found an accommodating and curious community. The pair took part in many interfaith sessions, sharing their culture and answering questions about their religion.
In the country on student visas, they were only allowed to work at the university. Their free time was spent volunteering any way they could.
It was just a matter of figuring out where her service was most needed.
Latif completed her doctorate in education leadership in 2010. At the time, her daughter Maryam Baqir was 3 and about to start school.
But there were no options for an Islamic education in Newark. So that year, teaching four students out of her home, Latif founded the Tarbiyah School – Arabic for “raising a child.”
News of the school spread by word of mouth in the Islamic community. Demand pushed the family to move the school to its current location off Old Baltimore Pike.
When Maryam attended Tarbiyah, students would volunteer with Meals on Wheels and with homeless shelters. Now 15 and attending Newark Charter School, she still helps her mother give back. When classes ended in June, Maryam spent the summer helping pack and deliver meals every day.
“I feel like most people don’t really realize how many kids don’t have meals at home and rely so much on schools for meals,” Maryam said.
The day starts with deliveries – milk for the day, as well as the hot meals prepared by the school’s distributor, restaurant Indian Sizzler. The morning is a flurry of activity, packing meals and getting them out to meal distribution sites.
Then comes the paperwork. Massive binders for each meal site, tracking the number of meals served, along with any leftovers.
In the afternoons, volunteers start packing non-perishables for breakfasts, ready to do it all again the next day.
“For it to happen every single day is what makes it so inspirational and stunning,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark. “All this time, while schools were sorting out different frameworks, for this group to come together and build rapport in the community and deliver food, it’s beautiful.”
Tarbiyah’s distribution locations have helped fill in gaps school districts haven’t been able to cover, Latif said. Like the school, the program has largely grown through word of mouth, connecting families in need, as well as volunteers.
Melva Robinson had been feeding families in motels on her own since March, using her own money and donations from friends and families to gather anything people needed.
One day, she saw a car driving down the highway with a sign advertising free meals for children.
“God led me to pick up and call them,” Robinson said. “I knew the need was there. But this opened my eyes, there’s other people out there doing tremendous and wonderful things to help meet that need.”
When the pandemic first started, it was Shormin Akther who suggested the school connect with nearby homeless shelters. She couldn’t help but think of the single mothers and children living there.
A supervisor at Tarbiyah, Akther regularly makes deliveries at Mary Mother of Hope House locations in Wilmington. About 10 years before, she and her children were homeless and living in the same shelter.
She doesn’t take a single day off in her deliveries, she said.
“We’re making some kind of difference in their lives,” Latif said. “Parents are relieved, they don’t have to worry about the meals for their children. It’s something less to worry about.”
USDA guidelines only allow Tarbiyah to give meals to children 18 and under. But volunteers still bring families extra groceries, clothing, diapers and books.
When a family doesn’t show up for a few days, volunteers start to worry. Families offer tea and conversation from a safe distance. Some volunteers use WhatsApp to let families know meals are on the way.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better example of a community coming together over a long term,” Townsend said. “This isn’t like a flood clean up or a storm clean up. This the relentless reaching out to the community from a place of purest sincerity and volunteerism.”
To see the extensive and daily operation in the school is staggering, Townsend said. For such a small school to put out over 1 million meals left him in awe.
Most everyone who comes across the school’s work is surprised by the scale.
Everyone but Maryam Baqir.
“I knew it was going to get big,” Maryam said. “Whenever we start something, it usually gets really big.”
Her parents moved to a small town in a new country pursuing their education. She watched her mother grow a small homeschool group into a school of 250 kids. Risk is in their genes, her mother jokes.
Of course the meal program would grow to what it is now.
“God tells us to serve people selflessly,” Latif said. “Do not ever expect anything back from anybody. Expect things from God. Serving people, doing service to the community, helping them with their needs, that’s fulfilling to my heart.”
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