Student Well-Being

Coronavirus Fears Lead School Districts to Halt or Make Changes to Children’s Food Services

By Corey Mitchell — March 24, 2020 6 min read
Cafeteria worker Cathy Piluso hands out free meals at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa., last week. Fears that food service workers could contract or spread the virus are spurring some districts around the country to rethink their alternative food service programs.

School districts in at least five states—Louisiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia—have suspended or adjusted their meal-distribution programs because their employees have contracted coronavirus or there is fear that they will.

Near Baton Rouge, La., a cluster of a dozen districts have either suspended or reduced the days of service for their meal programs.

The 110,000-student Shelby County, Tenn., school system also suspended its program after a food services employee tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus, or COVID-19.

And a surge in coronavirus cases in the city of Detroit led the school district to cut the number of sites where meals are being offered by 70 percent.

At least 16 school districts, serving nearly a half-million students combined, have either suspended or altered their meal-distribution programs due to coronavirus-related concerns, according to local media reports.

In other districts, administrators report staff members are nervous about reporting for work and volunteers have stepped in to fill shifts as governors across the country order more businesses closed and issue stay-at-home orders.

Millions of students rely on the free or discounted meals they eat at school—and that number could rise in the coming weeks as more people lose work.

But, as the virus spreads, and illness and fear shuts down food sites, schools now face a new hurdle to feeding the hungry.

In Houston, one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, staff are encountering mile-long lines at the 50 meal-pickup sites the district runs per week. The sites will remain open despite a stay-at-home order issued this week by countywide leaders to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Texas.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

The order has left the school district thin on staff to serve thousands of families in dire need of food, said Betti Wiggins, the officer of nutrition services for the Houston schools.

Wiggins began her tenure in the Houston schools two months before Hurricane Harvey leveled the city, causing catastrophic flooding that left many families homeless and hungry. But the current situation has been more challenging, she said.

“This is a crisis beyond crises,” said Wiggins. “We’re losing volunteers. We’re just trying to hold things together.” In the time since Education Week interviewed Wiggins, the 225,000-student school system suspended meal distribution as the district “re-evaluates its process for safely delivering this service,” according to a statement issued Wednesday night.

Workers at Risk

Federal officials have tried to inform the public that coronavirus is not likely to be transmitted by food.

“There is no evidence so far with this that we are seeing foodborne-driven or food service-driven spread of this,” Dr. Ian Williams, deputy incident manager for coronavirus response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a webinar hosted this month by the Food Industry Association. “It’s really that close personal contact, that sustained exposure to a person who was actually ill.”

But the attempts have done little to calm public concerns.

In a survey conducted this month by the nutrition group, more than 70 percent of food-services director expressed concern about the safety of employees preparing and distributing meals, and whether employees will continue to be available and willing to work during school closures.

With concerns mounting about the spread of coronavirus in West Virginia’s Kanawha County schools, home to the state’s largest district, administrators discontinued daily grab-and-go meal distribution.

When service resumes, the district will distribute meals by bus one day a week, handing out multiple meals per visit. The goal is to reduce the number of interactions between staffers and the public to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.

“I know they’re looking to be able to provide meals and they’re important, but we have to keep people alive,” Joe White, the executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, a union that represents food service workers and other school support staff.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order that was set to begin Tuesday night. At least two Kanawha County government employees have tested positive for coronavirus and White said his workers are worried they could be next.

“Our workforce is an aged workforce,” he said. “We have a lot of older people who are working and they’re at risk. If you’re 65, 70 years old, you don’t need to be out there.”

‘Helping Families Feel Safe’

In Detroit, the school system revamped food distribution as more employees began to test positive for the novel coronavirus.

In the past 13 days, the number of COVID-19 cases in the city has surged from zero to 550, said Denise Fair, the chief public health officer of the Detroit Health Department.

On Monday, the district informed families it was stopping food service in an automated call, initially tying it to a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Detroit Free Press reported.

The district has since reversed its decision, with plans to resume service from 17 locations. That’s a 70 percent decrease from the 58 sites the district operated last week.

The district has not released any information on how many district employees or contractors have tested positive for coronavirus.

“Families still need to be able to provide resources to their children,” said Fair, the city’s public health director. “We’re trying to help issue guidance to help families feel safe. I want to make sure children have food.”

The survey by the School Nutrition Association conducted this month found that most directors indicated that, to practice social distancing, their districts provided grab-and-go meals at school sites or drive-thru pick-up in school bus loops or parking lots.

In Louisiana, the districts that have either suspended or altered their meal programs since Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide stay-at-home order for all residents serve about 90,000 students. At least two of the districts, St. Helena and St. James, have employees who tested positive for COVID-19, the Advocate newspaper reported.

In a speech this week, Edwards told residents that Louisiana, with roughly 1,200 positive tests, has the highest number of cases per capita in the country behind New York and Washington state. The governor’s office is partnering with the National Guard to help districts develop plans for meal delivery.

“Closing schools means putting our children at risk of hunger,” acting state Superintendent Beth Scioneaux wrote in letter to districts this week. “You have gone above and beyond and the Department of Education is truly grateful for your efforts. The Governor, too, expresses his deep appreciation for all you have done for our children and our communities during this uncertain time.”

In Shelby County, Tenn., where schools suspended their program last Friday after a food services employee tested positive for COVID-19, the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South and area food banks stepped in to ensure the program continued. More than 60 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals.

“Students’ basic needs must be met first,” Shelby County Superintendent Joris Ray said. “We’re just thankful that we were able to make hard, fast decisions and that we had the full support of our community.”

The district moved early to try and stop the spread of coronavirus, shutting down schools before spring break and offering extra training and reminders to food service staff about safety precautions. But the community’s efforts didn’t work: Shelby County, which includes the city of Memphis, now has more than 130 COVID-19 cases.

“It’s just very difficult, this whole new way of living,” said Wiggins, the Houston food services officer. “This is a long-term issue. The things that we’re learning now, we may be doing for awhile.”

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