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Serving School Meals in Challenging Times

How school nutrition professionals, the unexpected first responders, are combating hunger and providing nutritious food to kids nationwide

Millions of kids across the country rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. More than 30 million kids, the majority of whom are growing up in families with low incomes, eat school breakfast and lunch every day. 

The new coronavirus has presented unprecedented challenges to the school meal programs. While people often think of healthcare professionals as emergency personnel and first responders, school district food service professionals are showing us that they are, too. Across the country, they have gone above and beyond the call of duty—even at risk to their own health—to ensure that children and families continue to have nutritious meals every day.

This is particularly important as healthy school meals help reduce children’s risk of obesity and related chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. These conditions increase the risk of people contracting COVID-19, and of having more severe or life-threatening cases if they do.

With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), school districts across the country have changed from serving hundreds of students at once in their cafeterias to running grab-and-go lines, meal delivery services, and more to help ensure students or entire families aren’t going hungry.

Read on to see coast-to-coast examples of how districts are responding during this challenging, uncertain time.

Stories from districts in 11 states show schools are working to serve healthy meals to students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting in the West

Let’s start the road trip on the West Coast in Seattle. Seattle Public Schools is not only offering school meals during the week, but they are also preparing weekend food bags. School librarians citywide offer free overstocked children’s books alongside the school lunch distribution. In nearby Tacoma, Franklin Pierce Public Schools has a bus that distributes school meals at various sites to make it easier for families who do not have access to transportation. Bus Driver Tony Reed says that he loves being able to maintain a daily connection with the kids.

San Francisco Unified School District is keeping nutrition top-of-mind as it continues to offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all children under 18 years of age. The menu consists of nutritious foods including hummus and vegetables. At each site, families are encouraged to pick up free books to help with academics. 

“It does help, you know. Because the grocery stores — not too much in there.”

Los Angeles Unified Public School District in California serves 700,000 students, 80% of whom live with families who have low income. The district is now serving not just its students, but all community members, including hungry adults. It’s essentially operating as a food bank with support of its 75,000 staff members, a fundraising campaign, and Uber, which gives families rides to the feeding sites.

Heading South

Food service staff and volunteers in several Texas school districts, including Dallas, Cedar Hill, and Fort Worth, have set up drive-through sites to distribute bagged meals, including dinner.

Louisiana, reporting one of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in the country and also one of the highest poverty rates (18.6%), is responding statewide. The Louisiana Department of Education released an interactive map by parish, and its feeding strategies include grab-and-go sites organized by schools and the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and “Meals-to-You,” in which 10 boxed breakfasts and 10 boxed lunches are delivered weekly to doorsteps of students of Livingston Parish Public Schools. Even sports teams like the New Orleans Saints are contributing to emergency school nutrition fundraisers.

“It’s just chaos right now, you know, because nobody’s working. My mom works at a hotel, my dad works as a painter…so, we are going to get as much food as we can and try to ride this out…Whatever they give us, we’ll appreciate it.”

Student Angel Lopez on what the meals mean to him and his family

Stopping Over in the Midwest

The Midwest is showing up for kids too. For example, in Milwaukee and Chicago, districts are supplying meals for kids, which is particularly important as most students in these cities are growing up in families with low incomes and are students of color. Communities of color and people living in low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because they are more likely to have chronic health conditions.

Black people comprise almost half of the 1,000 coronavirus cases in Milwaukee County, and they also account for 81% of the county’s 27 deaths, despite being just 26% of the population, according to a study by ProPublica. Milwaukee is supplying school meals at 20 sites across the city.

Chicago Public Schools is operating meal sites at nearly all of its schools, so that families can access the meals. In fact, 90% of all students live within one mile of a meal distribution site, and 75% of sites will be located on the south and west sides of the city, which include high concentrations of children living in low-income neighborhoods.

In more rural areas in states like Kentucky, in addition to grab-and-go sites, school districts are also offering mobile bus stop drop-offs like in Grant County

Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High school junior Trip Wright founded a company Zoom Food, which is a free grocery delivery service for people afraid to leave their homes because of COVID-19 exposure and also those most at-risk of contracting the virus.

Finishing on the East Coast

Trip was inspired by college students in New York City who were offering a similar service. From Ithaca to New York City, food service professionals are showing up for students, which is particularly critical given how COVID-19 is ravaging the state.

New York City Department of Education is the largest public school district in the country, serving more than 1 million students, and is now offering free meals to all New Yorkers. Meal delivery company Door Dash delivers school meals to students who are unable to leave their homes due to medical conditions.

Outside of the city, Ithaca delivers 900 meals per day to students in rural neighborhoods via school bus. School nutrition professionals in Lewis-St. Lawrence (Canton) and Potsdam Central School District shared with local media how important it is for them to distribute meals at various sites, as half of its students depend on the school meal program.

“We’ve got a situation where a lot of kids might not have enough at home right now. We’re trying to make sure we’re feeding them breakfast and lunch.”

Dave Gravlin, food service director for Lewis-St. Lawrence BOCES

Baltimore City Schools is distributing breakfast and lunches, which include milk, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, in partnership with 40 recreational centers that are supplementing meal pick-up by offering dinner and snacks.

School districts south of Baltimore are also recipients of neighborly love. In Richmond, Virginia, grocery store chain Food Lion donated $50,000 to help feed Richmond students. Students in DeKalb Co., Georgia are able to pick up meals or have them delivered via bus, thanks to partnerships with businesses such as Goodr, Inc., a tech company that tracks surplus food from pick-up to donation, which committed to help the district provide meals to 1,000 families not previously reached.

“My kids don’t have meals at home. And, now, they can eat something.”

Parent Rene Montecinos as he thanked the food service workers in DeKalb County, Georgia

What Comes Next

These are just a few examples of how food service professionals and volunteers are showing up for kids’ health, and more can be found on the “Meals for Kids” site finder, a USDA tool that helps families find meals for children during school closures. It lists more than 20,000 meal sites from 23 states and is updated weekly.

But families should not expect to see this response from schools in the long term if school closures persist. Some districts have started to recognize that school nutrition programs do not have the infrastructure to serve as emergency response models forever. It’s costly to the district, and it may not be sustainable as they try to figure out how to support hourly wage employees, and even, as Arizona has been experiencing, how to fund schools when funding is based on the number of days a student is in school. For other districts the health risks for school nutrition professionals and volunteers is proving too grave, like in Alabama, where one in four kids do not have enough to eat.

Even with everything schools are doing to feed students during this emergency, and with the flexibility USDA has provided states to support that, it still is considering a proposal that would result in less healthy meals in the long term.

Specifically, the proposed rule would allow schools to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables in meals.

A March 2020 study from Healthy Eating Research finds that the proposed changes to school meal nutrition standards would adversely affect students’ health and academic performance. Students from low-income families attending schools that are majority black or Hispanic and in rural neighborhoods are most likely to be negatively impacted by the proposed changes—the very populations of students who are leaning on the current school meal innovations to eat today.

healthy lunch tray and pizza

Stand Up for Healthy School Meals

USDA’s proposed rule on school meal nutrition standards would allow schools to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables. Foods like pizza and cheeseburgers could be served more often without being required to meet nutrition standards.

Urge USDA to Reconsider

Updated on April 14, 2020