The latest data from 2018 show that more than 37 million Americans, including 11 million children, are food insecure, meaning they are not able to afford enough food to support a healthy life. Experts believe that 17.1 million more people could become food insecure due to lost income, job loss and other hardships tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic hit, 51% of all students qualified for free or reduced price school meals. That’s millions of students from families with low income who rely on school meals as a critical source of daily nutrition. So what happens when that source is jeopardized because schools are forced to close due to COVID-19?
We talked with six school nutrition professionals from the Midwest to the East Coast who showed up strong as first responders when COVID-19 hit. They are advocates for healthy kids and families, rebels with a cause of ensuring no child goes hungry, and incredibly creative problem solvers and innovative partners.
These are their inspiring stories about the importance and power of healthy school meals.
Thinking Outside the Box to Feed Kids and Families Citywide
Houston Independent School District – Houston, TX – 200,000 students
On March 15, 2020, Betti Wiggins, nutrition services officer for the Houston Independent School District, got word that the district’s schools needed to close due to COVID-19.
Hear her tell it:
Since then, Betti has spread her love and passion for feeding not only students in her district, but also kids in 17 additional districts all across Houston, despite having little notice or planning. Using a warehouse the size of four football fields, she and her staff, the Houston Food Bank, other partners and volunteers, packaged thousands of bags of food and transported them in long refrigerated trucks to distribution sites all across the city.
Leading, in partnership with the Houston Food Bank, a well-oiled meal distribution operation, Betti was prepared to feed the long car lines of families from across the city of Houston–beyond students in the 17 districts. Her mission was bigger than passing out meals to feed kids:
Her desire was to provide quality, nutritious foods to any person who needed food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Families were already enduring job and childcare loss, health challenges and grieving the deaths of loved ones. Betti saw no reason why hunger should be added to the list, but she faced real barriers in helping her city address food insecurity, barriers she hopes policymakers will recognize and overcome:
Meeting the Growing Demand for Food During an Economic Crisis
Omaha Public Schools – Omaha, Nebraska – 53,682 Students
Omaha Public Schools’ Nutrition Services Director Tammy Yarmon describes her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic as “wild.” In the first two weeks, she and her team served over 7,500 meals across 4 sites and delivered meals on Mondays. By summer, they were distributing meals across 40 sites with operations running Monday through Thursday.
Demand for meals grew exponentially. Tammy explained how creatively her team needed to think at every turn to stock up on supplies like bleach and portion cups, and feed as many people as they could as quickly as they could.
“With kids, parents and caregivers now at home, daily household supplies like toilet paper, paper towels, and soap are used up more quickly. Bills like electricity and water are higher because everyone is at home. The pandemic is hitting family budgets in unexpected ways no matter their economic status.”
Through the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program and the district’s partnership with the YMCA, Omaha Public Schools families received boxes of fresh produce from the Y at the school district’s distribution sites. Tammy shared that for one family, the only fresh fruits and vegetables they ate during the pandemic came from the boxed meals the district offered. This underscores the critical importance of providing fresh fruits and vegetables as part of school meals programs.
No deed went unthanked. Tammy recalls kids who made paper airplanes with handwritten thank you notes that they would sail out the window to her volunteer staff. Others would press thank you signs and pictures they drew against the inside of car windows.
This kind of gratitude is what reminds Tammy of why–despite the struggles and unknowns COVID-19 has brought her program–she loves the career that she has built and the hardworking staff right by her side, pulling together in seemingly impossible times.
Local Shero Champions Feeding Kids and Educating Families
Burke County Public Schools – Burke County, Georgia – 4,300 students
When COVID-19 first hit cities across the country and shutdown schools, Director of School Nutrition Programs Donna Martin wasted no time. When the virus spread to the rural area of Burke County, Georgia, she and her team had already devised a plan to feed their district’s kids:
On March 18, 2020, the morning after the notice aired to shut down the county’s schools, Donna and her staff were on the road serving packed meals at bus stops near kids’ homes. They were even serving kids who attended private schools — an opportunity that garnered interest from parents who were hearing about the healthy food options Donna offered and wanted the same. A duty she was happy to do.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist, Donna’s passion goes beyond feeding kids. Her mission is to provide kids with nutritious meals and teach them the importance of eating healthy foods. Donna’s powerful meal distribution plan transformed into an opportunity to revitalize children’s interest about what a healthy meal looks like, and in turn, take their findings home and teach their parents. Donna started including flyers with the packed meals that informed families when the next bus full of food would come, and also included recipes to teach families wonderful ways to cook garbanzo beans, sugar snap peas, jicama and other healthy foods they served.
Keeping Connected and Making the School Meal Experience Fun
Burlington School District – Burlington, Vermont – 3,565 Students
If you would have told Food Service Director Doug Davis that people in Burlington would be waiting in long lines for meals, he would have told you “that you were crazy.” But virtually overnight, that’s exactly what happened as Burlington School District became the city’s “largest restaurant chain,” operating breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Doug worked with district and community partners to make the experience of receiving free, healthy school meals fun for families, hoping to diminish the stigma that so many families felt because they needed help. The district’s technology department handed out devices kids needed for remote learning at the sites, teachers passed out homework and curriculum, the local library distributed books and Wow Toyz donated pallets of toys for kids. Doug loved seeing joy on families’ faces and connecting with students and their parents. He believes connection is a cornerstone of his nutrition program.
Doug is working to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t make the distribution of school meals more transactional than educational, as kids in his district–and so many others across the country–used to grow their own food in school gardens, visit farms, and take cooking classes during the school year. He worries about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the school nutrition program, that it could diminish kids’ love for eating healthier meals and their understanding of where the food comes from.
“We’ve worked too hard for way too many years to allow the quality of school meals to slide as a result of the pandemic. Eating healthy foods is only one piece of the puzzle. Helping kids develop a love relationship with food, learn its history and understand how it’s grown are the best rewards for our work. These lessons will contribute to future generations having healthy eating habits.”
Many of the resources children once had that connected them to food may be unavailable for the unforeseeable future as kids aren’t attending school in-person and school district budgets have taken a hit. However, Doug knows this crisis has elevated the importance of healthy school meals–not only in his community but nationwide. And he’s hopeful there will be a more intentional national investment in school meals.
Connecting With Students and Serving an Entire City
Chicago Public Schools – Chicago, Illinois – 355,000 students
Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) nutrition support services department, in partnership with global food service corporation Aramark, serves meals to more than 355,000 students daily. Once the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, Health Promotion Manager Tarrah DeClemente knew the district had to find a way to ensure all CPS students had access to healthy meals and fast.
The CPS team distributes three days worth of meals at a time for each child in the household, Tarrah began to see the pandemic as an opportunity not only to feed students but also to help them connect with supportive employees during a year rife with social injustice and racial tension. She explains that “school is more than a place to learn, it is a safe space where students have opportunities to debrief about current events, to learn advocacy skills, to talk about emotions, and have supportive adults check in on them. Our incredible staff is not only making sure our students and their families receive nutritious foods but are also checking in with families as they come to distribution sites.”
Tarrah saw such a high demand and need not only to feed students, but also their families who struggled with food security during the shelter in place mandate. The need extended beyond her own school district:
With the world in crisis, Chicago Public Schools is thankful for USDA’s relaxed rules that allowed them to feed families in need more easily during the pandemic. They don’t have to take identification or turn families away because they’re at the wrong school or distribution site–they can do right by the city of Chicago at a time when residents need them.
Fighting the Stigma of Receiving Free Healthy Meals
Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools – Michigan – 3,500 students
Dan Gorman leads two school districts’ food service programs in Michigan—Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools—where his mission during the COVID-19 pandemic was two-fold: 1) to make meal distribution as easy on families as possible; and 2) to reduce the stigma of receiving them.
Dan operates from a place of empathy, explaining that too many families are feeling tremendous stress and experiencing trauma of living through the pandemic.
When his districts’ schools shut down in the spring, he and his team served meals in bulk that could sustain a family for a week, making sure that part of the bulk meal included fruits and vegetables. He explained that it’s hard on families to drive to a food distribution site for one meal at a time, as they are dealing with so many other things during a pandemic, and also those trips cost time and gas money. This is another example of Dan leading with empathy and problem solving in ways that make just one of the impacts of COVID-19 easier on families.
The USDA’s waivers, which have allowed his district staff to distribute free meals to all families until December 31, 2020, also help. It reduces the stigma that historically has come with needing the school meals programs. Dan hopes that families understand that so many of us simply need a little extra support, particularly right now.
“I am very grateful during these uncertain times that the USDA has allowed us to continue to be a nutritional safety net for our families and students and that we can have food available for them every week from now until the end of December. I hope the USDA and the legislature have the wisdom to extend these programs for the full school year.”
Published on October 14, 2020
School Meals and Snacks
Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program.