As the coronavirus crisis has forced millions of children out of school cafeterias and millions of their parents into unemployment, the social safety net of free school meals has begun to fray.
More districts are turning to food banks and nonprofits for help, reconfiguring meal distribution plans, and authorizing hazard pay for front-line employees to keep them safe—and on the job.
But even their best efforts to confront child hunger may just be scratching the surface of growing and unprecedented need.
In the last month, more than a third of parents reported skipping entire meals for their children or cutting the size of servings because they did not have enough money for food, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,025 families from Hunger Free America.
“Schools are making heroic efforts to get children food, but they’re not able to do it alone,” said Joel Berg, the chief executive officer of the New York City-based nonprofit. “How long can families survive with this level of hunger? They’re hanging on now, but every week it’s going to get worse.”
Jenny Arredondo, the executive director of child nutrition services for the San Antonio Independent schools, in Texas, has seen the desperation and fallout from economic collapse first-hand.
While 10,000-plus families lined up for a pre-Easter San Antonio Food Bank giveaway last week, the school district prepared and distributed close to 40,000 meals the following Monday.
While many other districts around the country have reduced the number of food distribution sites since the coronavirus crisis began, the San Antonio schools expanded. When schools shuttered on March 16, the district handed out meals at eight high schools. Now, a month later, the district uses 29 school campuses for drive-up and walk-in distribution and 65 bus routes to get food to families in need.
Under the old setup, families would walk miles to and from schools to secure food.
“It’s just been so sobering,” Arredondo said. The food “was always needed, but it’s needed now more so than ever and you see it. You can truly see it.”
A survey conducted for the School Nutrition Association last month just as many schools began to close, found that more than 90 percent of food service directors were at least moderately worried that students would miss meals—a fear that has come to fruition.
Now, as nearly every school meal program in the nation transitioned from cafeterias to the curbside, their needs have shifted as well, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the organization.
Demand for personal protective equipment has emerged as a new and urgent concern. Many school districts were already well-stocked with gloves, a staple of the food service industry, but are now facing a severe shortage of masks and aprons.
Food service directors are keenly aware that a single employee contracting COVID-19 could bring entire operations to a screeching halt and that their employees face on-the-job hazards much like their grocery store brethren.
“I don’t ever want to promise a meal program or a location for our community and not be able to sustain it,” said Arredondo. “We’re in the business of feeding kids. But it’s a different game now. The world has changed.”
An Education Week review of news reports found that school food employees have died in at least four states—Missouri, Nevada, New York, and Texas—but it is unclear if the employees contracted COVID-19 on the job or elsewhere.
The San Diego Unified school board approved hazard pay for food service, delivery workers, and custodial staff. Hundreds of employees in the 103,000-student district will receive time-and-a-half pay, retroactive to mid-March when the shutdown began.
‘What If Something Happens?’
Last week, a school employee in Jefferson County, Ala., was rushed to the hospital last week after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The test eventually came back negative, but the scare caused enough concern for the 36,000-student district to shut down food sites for two days.
At least a half-dozen districts in north central Alabama have halted food distribution, reports the news site al.com, as they are forced to choose between feeding hungry children and curbing the spread of coronavirus.
Jefferson County schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin had long feared that one of the district’s food service employees, who are predominately older women, could contract the virus.
“I was always thinking, ‘Oh my god, what if something happens?” Gonsoulin said. “But our kids need to eat.”
After the two-day shutdown, the district restarted service with help from Kikstart Inc., a nonprofit that has served close to 25,000 meals in school districts around Birmingham and Selma.
In response to increased need in the region, the Community Foodbank of Central Alabama has delivered more food more often to school campuses, even though schools are closed.
Helpline calls for food assistance have surged, increasing 700 percent in the last month, said Emily Wix, the director of partnerships at the food bank.
Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which works with 900 partner agencies across 34 counties, is facing similar demand.
The region includes Durham County, where school officials shut down their school meal program for close to two weeks after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. After the positive test, the rush of staff applying for paid leave left the district unable to effectively operate the program.
The 33,000-student district, in partnership with local government and nonprofits, is now scheduled to resume service Thursday, providing breakfast and lunches for children prepared by local restaurants along with food supplies and casseroles for families.
The food bank has also set up 14 grab-and-go meal sites across the region to help feed children up to the age of 18 and provided emergency food boxes for families in the Wake County, N.C., school district.
“When one person is hungry in a house, they’re likely not the only one,” said Jennifer Caslin, marketing and project manager for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
Michigan is one of nine states the United States Department of Agriculture has approved, as of Wednesday, for the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Program, which gives extra money for food to low-income families with children in closed schools. The funds are available on debit-like cards that can be used in food stores.
In Michigan alone, families of 895,000 students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs are eligible. That number may mask the scope of need in the state: More than 1 million state residents in the state have filed for federal unemployment benefits.
The Hunger Free America survey found that adult hunger is also on the rise and that 38 percent of households nationwide reported a loss in income over the past month.
Approved by Congress as part of the COVID-19 relief efforts, the pandemic food benefits of at least $5.25 per child per day, are meant to supplement, not supplant, efforts by local school districts to feed children.
In Muskegon Heights, a city in the western half of the state, school workers are delivering meals along bus routes with door-to-door service for medically fragile children and other students with disabilities.
The school district has been forced to adjust its meal delivery methods four times in the past four weeks. The motivation to keep food service going is two-fold: feed the school district’s 650 students and keep residents employed, Superintendent Rane’ Garcia said.
The need for food has long been dire in Muskegon Heights, one of the state’s most economically depressed communities. Before the statewide school shutdown, which will now continue for the rest of the school year, the district was already serving free lunch and breakfast and packaging a take-home meal for every student daily.
On some days during the shutdown, the school system has served more meals per day than it has students because many children who live there attend schools in nearby districts.
“If they can show up to one of our buses, we’re not asking what school they go to,” Garcia said. “If we don’t provide this, families will struggle. The trauma and insecurity that people are seeing across the country has been a part of our community for a long time.”
Garcia is unsure how much the pandemic benefit will help families in her community. There are no full-service grocery stores within the district borders; the lone food shopping option for families without transportation is a Dollar General that sells snacks, drinks, and canned food and vegetables but no fresh produce.
Last summer, in a push to quell violence and hunger, the city hosted a “Guns for Groceries” swap, where people could exchange their guns for a $100 grocery gift card to use at a big-box store in a neighboring community.
“We had a major hunger crisis when things were going great,” said Berg, the Hungry Free America CEO. “We’re acculturated to expect happy endings, but that’s not what always happens. Poor people suffer more and they always have.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Schools Struggle to Meet Rising Demand for Food