With Schools Closed, Districts Are Committed To Keeping Kids Fed

Large or small, urban or rural, school districts around the country are working hard to ensure students don’t go hungry. 

As classrooms remain shut down to contain the spread of COVID-19, school districts across the country are responding to the unanticipated and prolonged break in the academic year by continuing to provide meals to students, many of whom rely on the breakfasts and lunches normally served on campus to meet their nutritional needs.

From urban and suburban communities to more rural areas, districts nationwide have arranged for families to retrieve grab-and-go meals at designated pickup sites or school bus stops. In some cases, districts are even making home deliveries. In most cases, cafeteria workers and school staff are preparing the food. In some districts, they wear masks and have their temperature checked before packing up the meals.

With over 26 million students, or more than half of all public school children in the country, qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, the need to feed them doesn’t go away simply when campuses shut down.

Research suggests that hunger and food insecurity can lead to toxic stress, which can negatively impact a child’s ability to process information and learn. Additionally, those who work in schools say it’s critical during times like this, when anxiety levels are high and many families are coping with financial hardships and the added burden of homeschooling, that students aren’t missing out on the nutrients they need to fortify themselves.

Jan Desmarais-Morse, a school counselor in Indiana, said at least knowing where one’s next meal is coming from in the midst of all this chaos can have a calming effect.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring related to COVID-19. Our kids don’t know. We need to do our best to provide some kind of normalcy and security during very insecure times,” said Desmarais-Morse, a finalist for the American School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year award in 2019.

Some of the nation’s largest cities with high-poverty neighborhoods are getting help from big-name donors or entrepreneurs. World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres that delivers meals to areas affected by disasters, has partnered with schools in Los Angeles and is helping distribute meals to the greater community in places like New York City and Newark, NJ.

But for the most part, across the country, it is a local effort. Large or small, urban or rural, districts around the country are working hard to ensure students don’t go hungry.

In Farmington, NM, the district adjusted its initial meal distribution plan after learning that some families in this rural community 200 miles northwest of Santa Fe would have trouble getting to the pickup sites located closer to the city center, said Renee Lucero, a spokeswoman for the school system. In response, bus drivers are dropping off meals along some of the regular school bus stops. Community members have been providing hand-sewn masks to keep bus drivers and those preparing and distributing the meals safe, Lucero added.

Staff with the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OCPS) prepare and pass out meals. Photos coutesy of OCPS

In St. Paul, MN, where 70 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the district is offering home deliveries to people with compromised immune systems who can’t leave the house or to families that lack transportation, said Stacy Koppen, the district’s director of nutrition services.

While most districts are handing out one breakfast and one lunch per child per day, St. Paul is distributing boxes containing a week’s worth of school meals — that’s five breakfasts and five lunches—so people only have to leave home once a week to pick up the meals.

“We’re trying to cut down on congregrant setting,” Koppen said. “We want people to stay home as much as possible.”

Communities elsewhere are going beyond providing weekday meals.

A nonprofit called the Backpack Brigade normally distributes 900 bags of food on Fridays to families in Seattle that need assistance to get through the weekends. Since the COVID-19 campus closures, however, the organization, in partnership with Seattle Public Schools, has been providing 1,500 weekend meal packs to supplement the meals students are receiving through the district on weekdays, reports Nichelle Hilton, executive director of Backpack Brigade.

In Oklahoma City, where more than 90 percent of public school children qualify for free or reduced-price meals, some schools have been handing out new and gently used children’s books — provided by partner organizations — along with the meals. The district has been engaged in a community-wide effort to promote literacy and does not want children to lose interest in reading because libraries are closed at the moment.

"That love of reading—we didn’t want that to die down,” said Courtney Morton, the district’s spokeswoman. “We want to keep that excitement there so that our kids will keep reading.”

Morton did not have a tally of how many books have been given away but noted that a couple of schools ran out of books to hand out last week.

As for the meals themselves, officials for most districts that spoke with SLJ said they’re prepared to distribute them through the end of the term if necessary. School districts plan to seek federal reimbursement for the cost of the food. Still, some wonder if that will be enough.

Backpack Brigade driver Mike Humphries.
Photos courtesy of Nichelle  Hilton

Koppen, of the St. Paul school district, worries about keeping the meal distribution service running beyond April should the state extend school closures. (As of now, schools in Minnesota are closed until early May.) Between employees who are concerned about becoming infected with the coronavirus because they live with someone with a weakened immune system, those who must stay home because their children are now out of school, and general burnout, Koppen wonders if, long-term, there will be enough food services workers to keep up with the demands of preparing and distributing the meals.

The district has also been dipping into a rainy day reserve to cover the increased cost of food since, in some cases, it’s been forced to purchase prepackaged food items, Koppen said. On top of that, the district faces added expenses such as purchasing boxes for meal distributions.

“It’s very scary right now,” Koppen said about tapping into the reserve fund. “But we feel like we have no other choice. We use these resources or people go hungry.”

Keith Perrigan, superintendent of schools in Bristol, a city in rural Virginia, estimates that 120 of the 900 meals the district has been distributing daily have been delivered to people’s homes, while the rest are handed out at pickup locations. Thus far, the district hasn’t had to turn away any home delivery requests, said Perrigan, who stressed the importance of making sure children are well-nourished.

“We’re not just about reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he said. “It’s about meeting the basic needs of our children. … If we can’t fill their bellies, we can’t fill their brains.”

Linh Tat is a freelance reporter based in Southern California. Find her on Twitter at @Linh_Tat.

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