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Feeding Scattered Students: How Kids Get Meals while Schools are Closed

written by Stephanie Armstrong (SFUSA policy Intern), Ed Yowell (SFUSA policy Chair) and the SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Working Group

Missing Meals

With more than 130,000 schools closed, districts face the challenge of serving meals to non-congregating kids. The USDA has made this burden lighter by enacting nationwide waivers allowing districts to serve grab-and-go and home-delivered meals, extend hours of service, forgo nutrition standards when necessary, and allow guardians to pick up meals for their children, among others. However, states must ask for waiver-approval independently, and this extra step has caused a lag for many schools trying to develop emergency feeding plans.

School food suspension has also been an issue as workers test positive for COVID-19 or schools run out of money. Schools in Houston, Detroit, Montgomery, and other areas have either suspended or pared down distribution. Although Congress appointed $8.8 billion to child nutrition – including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and Child and Adult Care Food Program – these funds from the CARES Act have not been dispersed, and they do not compensate for meal delivery. To complicate matters further, only schools with at least 50% of students qualifying for free- or reduced-priced meals are eligible to serve all students free meals during closures.

Nonetheless, administrators and food service workers are rallying in attempts to serve the nearly 57 million children out of school. We look at the short-term strategies implemented by schools and the government, and discuss long-term possibilities for a healthier, more sustainable school food system.

From the Bottom-Up: Schools Meet the Challenge

Lillian Barnett, Child Nutrition Director at Florence Independent School District in Texas, states, “We have to keep the food chain moving. Cows are milking, chickens are laying. It would be an economical and environmental disaster [to suspend school meals]. Plus the kids and families need us.”

“I agree,” adds Tracie Smith of Vidor High School in Texas. “We have had parents thank us with tears in their eyes.”

Despite some areas scaling back as workers become ill, others have expanded services over the past few weeks to increase access for families. The Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy published a set of best practices to help school food authorities ensure food access and public safety. According to the Tish Center’s ongoing record of district responses, here are some of examples of how schools are rising to meet the challenge of feeding communities.

Grab-and-Go

Districts have instituted grab-and-go models with curbside pickup or drive-thrus, many using a combination of strategies to send food home.

      • Anchorage School District in Alaska gives out “take and bake” frozen meals that students can pick up from their schools.
      • Tulsa Public Schools’ “Mobile Meals” drive-thru offers meals served from school buses at 170 stops in the city.
      • Richmond Public Schools has food available at both schools and meal hubs scattered throughout the city.

Delivery

School buses that would sit parked are instead utilized to deliver weekly or daily meals. Some deliver at their regular bus stops, while others deliver straight to students’ doors.

      • Ithaca City School District has switched to delivery-only and asks parents to sign up online.
      • Denver Public Schools will send yellow buses to stops around the city for the rest of the school year.
      • Detroit Public Schools Community District delivers directly to medically compromised students.

Creative Collaborations

Schools, businesses and community organizations demonstrate the value partnership to expanding services.

      • Baldwin County, Alabama posted a list of businesses serving meals to students, including Honey Baked Ham, Edible Arrangements, and several local establishments.
      • The New York City Department of Education partners with DoorDash, taxis, Uber, and Lyft to deliver food to “medically fragile” students.
      • Ohio districts give away seed packets with meals to support home gardening and continue nutrition education through Children’s Hunger Alliance.
      • Cincinnati Public Schools invites partner organizations to meal hubs to distribute hygiene kits, educational items, and extra food.

Filling in Food Security Gaps

We know that many children do not have regular access to food outside of school breakfast and lunch. With unemployment and food insecurity on the rise, schools and cities strive to fill these gaps.

      • Birmingham Public Schools gives out meals to kids who show up regardless of whether they are enrolled.
      • Montgomery Public Schools works with Manna Food to distribute weekend backpacks containing snacks.
      • Seattle families can pick up food from the Weekend Student Meal Support program prepared by food bank volunteers featuring non-perishable items like canned goods, snacks and juice.

Feeding Families

In this unprecedented time, communities are taking unprecedented action to care for adults too.

      • Philadelphia offers free food to children and adults alike in addition to weekday meals for students.
      • New York City hands out free breakfast and lunch to anyone in need at more than 400 meal hubs.
      • Indy Parks and Recreation in Indianapolis serves meals in family recreation centers and apartment complexes.

From the Top-Down: USDA Meals-to-You

Before the pandemic, 30 million children received free or reduced-priced school meals, and the need is only increasing. Missing out on school food equates to a minimum cost of $30 per week to feed children at home. The cost is likely higher because parents do not receive discounted bulk-purchasing rates, plus this estimate does not account for time spent buying and preparing food. Rural communities have been hit especially hard by the closures, considering these communities comprise 84% of U.S. counties with the highest percent of children at risk for food insecurity. Moreover, children in rural regions often have a more difficult time accessing food that is prepared due to transportation issues.

To combat these problems, the USDA, PepsiCo, McLane Global and the Baylor Collaborative have partnered to ship weekly boxes of shelf-stable food to one million rural schoolchildren. This Meals-to-You program is designed to meet the USDA breakfast and lunch nutritional meal patterns of the Summer Food Service Program, which are less stringent than the criteria for the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs.

Food access is a top priority in a time of crisis. Still, critics call Meals-to-You “a return to the ‘Harvest Box’ idea that the administration has proposed multiple times for SNAP users.” Major issues with the “Harvest Box idea” are lack of control over food choices, reliance on shelf-stable and processed foods, and limited purchasing from local producers. As a stop-gap solution, the non-perishable foods offered by Meals-to-You may keep bellies fed, and that is a laudable effort. As a long-term solution, Meals-to-You stops short of what communities need.

Secretary Perdue says of the Meals-to-You program, “This whole of America approach to tackling the coronavirus leverages private sector ingenuity with… federal financing.” While large food businesses are being leveraged, it seems small producers are left in the lurch – with estimated losses of $1.3 billion between March and May – even as more and more people need nourishment.

Local Solutions

Some areas with strong school-producer ties continue incorporating local food, yet many schools that usually offer farm-to-school programs are unable to manage local procurement for the time being, creating another setback for regional producers. “Using local foods (when they are the highest quality) during the normal operations are important,” says Joe Urban, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina. “The challenges we are facing right now with this situation do not allow me to be concerned at all with local. We are managing constantly changing environments in regards to staffing and food availability. This is crisis management mode plan and simple at this point.”

With schools doing their best to whip up quick – and often weekly – meals, plus the Meals-to-You program, many are concerned about the long-term food security and nutritional health of the growing numbers of families in need. Lack of nutrition can lead to fatigue, decreased immunity and risk of catching disease. Children facing long-term food insecurity are at risk for negative developmental, psychological, physical and emotional effects. Without a solution to meet the needs of families and local food producers, this pandemic could leave us with a wider food equity gap.

Given these concerns, how do we support access to nutritious food from local growers, producers, and fishers?

One option is expanding Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT). Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, children who would usually receive free- or reduced-priced meals are eligible for P-EBT, which applies meal reimbursement funds to EBT cards for SNAP or non-SNAP households. Essentially, this means the money the government would spend for school meal reimbursement instead goes directly to families to spend at grocery stores, corner stores, markets, and other locations that accept SNAP benefits. These locations often have local food available, and may even offer discounts on produce such as the “Double Up Food Bucks” program at farmers markets. According to No Kid Hungry, children are eligible for P-EBT even if their school districts continue serving meals during closures.

P-EBT can provide up to $650 monthly for a family of four, but there are limitations. Notably, kids who miss meals due to childcare closures are ineligible for P-EBT, along with children of undocumented immigrants – who do not qualify for SNAP. Furthermore, the Public Charge and ABAWD rules (even though ABAWD has been placed on hold) may discourage families from signing up to receive these extra benefits even when they are urgently needed. For families already enrolled in SNAP, benefits cannot be used to order online from farmers markets unless Congress expands the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot program.

Another option, based on the No Kid Hungry best practices, is to locate out-of-work restaurant or food service employees and hire them back into the food system. Recently unemployed workers can help prepare and distribute school meals, an especially important job since many schools who do not prepare local food identify lack of manpower as a hindrance. Additional personnel could also help schools find community assets like local farms and fisheries with undistributed food, restaurants with excess inventory, idle food preparation and storage spaces, delivery partners, and more. The snag in this solution is the additional funding that may be required to employ these food service workers through and beyond the pandemic.

Additionally, the government could directly support farmers markets or CSAs at school food distribution sites by expanding the Farm to School Grant Program, or by allotting additional funds to schools and regional food producers in the upcoming coronavirus aid package. Following the CSA blueprint, government funds could pay producers up front for the season, allowing them to distribute free food to students and families. The onus lies on Congress to provide the necessary funding and on the USDA to allow schools to easily access grants for this purpose. The government should support farm-to-school programs at a time when school food service workers face higher demands with fewer staff.

Any of these solutions would call on Congress to expand funding and USDA programming. When both chambers are in session on April 20, we expect to hear talks of a fourth coronavirus aid bill. We must ensure the debate is informed is informed by the changing landscape of supply and demand in the food chain.

Meanwhile, the inspiring work we are witnessing demonstrates the dedication and grit of school food service workers, as well as the collaboration on which communities rely in hard times. As the short-term transitions into the months ahead, Slow Food USA is advocating to build on the innovation of our school districts to create stronger connections between schools and local producers for healthy, sustainable, and secure school food. Perhaps we can lay the groundwork for the years to come.