Cafeteria workers and school nutrition directors from five districts across the country explain how meal programs are working now.
As coronavirus has shut down the United States, schools have had no choice but to close and move classes — or at least, some semblance of them — online. But some school services can’t be delivered remotely. You can’t serve lunch over Zoom.
For millions of American families, though, school meal programs are essential, the difference between fed kids and hungry ones. On a regular, non-pandemic school day, the National School Lunch Program provides free or low-cost meals to 29.7 million kids, while the School Breakfast Program reaches 14.6 million students daily. And as the people who work in school nutrition are acutely aware, with skyrocketing unemployment, the need is only going up. “We’ve already seen new applications coming in,” says Gay Anderson, child nutrition director for South Dakota’s Brandon Valley Schools and president of the School Nutrition Association.
In response, school nutrition programs have sprung into action, trying to figure out how to get food to the kids who depend on it without putting themselves — or the students — at risk. School feeding, which falls under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture, is a complicated operation on a good day; now, districts are scrambling to navigate this new reality.
What those efforts look like on the ground varies widely: Some districts are operating curbside grab-and-go operations daily; others are running twice-weekly delivery routes, with school buses ferrying meals instead of kids. Some communities haven’t been hit hard by the virus yet; others have had to temporarily suspend or scale back service, as food service workers have fallen ill. Some are offering hazard pay to front-line workers, but many aren’t — there’s no federal funding allocated to improving labor conditions for essential staff.
The past few weeks have been “a big cyclone of worrying,” one cafeteria worker in Virginia told me. “Are the kids safe? Are we safe? Can we do this? Are they not going to get fed?” Then there’s an uncertain future to contend with: Districts are consumed with the challenge of feeding kids now, and at the same time, school nutrition directors are trying to figure out what to do about next year, bracing for higher food costs on even more limited budgets.
Over the past week, I’ve been talking to school nutrition directors and food service workers across the country about their programs and what their lives look like now. Our conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Contract food service worker for Amity Regional School District, Connecticut
I’m a front-line worker. We’re still continuing to provide meals for the kids while they’re out of school in this crisis. I’m making 450 to 900 meals a day, depending on the request. Not only am I making meals for my school, but I’m making meals for other schools in the district, and we’re sending them off.
I’ve only been at this job since January. Before this started, I would come in around 9:30, prep for the meals, cash out all the students that come through for lunch, and then clean afterward. It wasn’t so stressful, and it wasn’t so scary.
Now we’re coming in at 6 am, maybe 6:30 am, every morning, and we’re working until maybe 1:30, 2 o’clock. We serve Monday through Friday from 10 am to 12 pm. They’re all cold meals. We probably do a turkey and cheese sandwich. Maybe chips and dip. Cereal, applesauce, carrots, celery, broccoli — anything that they need, we’re giving it to them as long as it’s healthy.
I’m grateful to even be at work still. A lot of people aren’t working, and unemployment checks haven’t hit a lot of people’s bank accounts yet. I’m grateful. But again, it’s scary. Right now, I’m making $17 an hour. We haven’t gotten any type of hazard pay. We’re working on it, but we haven’t heard anything back yet. I’m hoping for the best.
I don’t feel safe because I think that we need PPE. It’s very important. We need necessities that will protect us. We all have gloves they give us, but we bring masks. I brought my own, and then the next day, everybody wore masks. They’re like, “Oh, my god, we can wear masks?” I’m like, “Yes! We have to wear masks! If you have to bring your own, bring your own.”
People are dying every day from this disease. So it’s like, am I at risk? Am I putting myself at risk? Yes. I’m a single mom. I’m afraid that if I bring it home to my daughter, god forbid something happens to her. So that’s my stress as well.
I miss seeing the kids. Because lunch people, lunch staff, food service workers — whatever you want to call us — we affect the students as well. You really watch them grow up. It’s like your own kid. I used to go to school just to eat lunch. I didn’t have food at home, so I know how much of an effect a school lunch person can have on a child. You never know what a kid is going through. When you see them and you smile, it matters. It means something to them. To this day at 32 years old, it still means something to me when I see the lunch lady that used to give me food when I didn’t have food. She took care of me. She’s a good person. I try to be that role model for the kids when they come through my line.
Food services director for Prairie Hills Unified School District, Kansas
It was a no-brainer that we would move into emergency feeding, so in mid-March I started gathering information to see what I needed to do to make that happen. That essentially meant Googling “emergency closure feeding for school nutrition” and reading different articles about what schools had done during natural disasters and what schools on the East and West coasts were doing.
I knew I wanted to provide lunch for sure, breakfast if it was possible. We started getting news that the USDA was going to loosen guidelines and allow us more flexibility in where and how we could feed kids during an emergency. We have a waiver that allows us to serve in areas that would not normally qualify, because the free and reduced percentages are not as high. We can treat it just like our summer food program, which is free for any child under 18. You don’t have to provide identification or anything like that. We don’t need to know if you’re a student. You just show up to the site and get a meal.
We have nine serving sites, and we have a home delivery route in our largest community — that’s considered the ninth site. It’s just me, driving my car.
When we first started, we relied heavily on prepackaged items that we could just throw in a bag. Uncrustables are huge. We serve lunch and breakfast at the same time, so tons of prepackaged mini pancakes and mini bagels with cream cheese. Precut apple slices. Baby carrots that are packaged. That allowed us to focus on the operation for a while rather than trying to focus on the food. We just set up an assembly line on the cafeteria tables so that we could spread out and just started bagging.
We’ve moved away from the prepackaged stuff because it isn’t available. We just can’t get it, so now we’re having to do things like cup our own fruit and bag our own vegetables, which is tedious. I’m usually in the kitchen by about 4:15 am, just getting stuff ready. Today for lunch we did a ham and cheesy ranch croissant. We’ve had to get very fancy with our bread choices because we can’t find anything else. We’ve joked that we were going to put it on our regular menu and label it the Corona Special.
The very first week, my cooks were also the meal service people. We learned quickly that that was not going to work. I realized if we had any chance at all of making this sustainable for any length of time that I needed to keep the people preparing the food as insulated as I possibly could.
I think the thing that surprised me the most has been the level of responsibility I feel. I want so much to make good decisions for my staff and for our communities, and it often feels like those are at odds. I feel like their lives are in my hands — in both cases, because I have definitely seen the need for our meals for families that are struggling. I also see the fear in my employees’ eyes.
Claine Raining bird
Assistant cook at a school on an American Indian reservation, Montana
We had to find a new system to serve the kids. We do hot meals. Comfort food. We did breakfast for lunch today — premade omelets, pancakes, sliced oranges, milk. Tomorrow’s going to be our Easter dinner. We normally do some scalloped potatoes, ham, fruit, and a dinner roll. We would serve this on trays; now it’s in a to-go box.
We have one central curbside pickup point at our main school — we’re pretty centrally located. It’s a half-mile walking distance in each direction. The town’s not very big. There are five different towns on this reservation. In other towns, the HPDP [Indian Health Service’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention program] is doing meals. We have our own school, and that takes care of most of the feeding on this side of the reservation. Our food program and their program are two different things.
Certain items are backed up. Cleaning supplies, gloves. Bags of chips, now — the little 8-ounce bags. We’re serving about 500 meals a day, maybe 2,000 a week. We can pretty much figure out the patterns. Mondays are the busiest, and Fridays, because of the weekend. I’ve worked in all the schools, so I know the kids that need it, and I know the ones that will be all right. We’re in a part of the state where the poverty is pretty high, so over 60 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. Right now, we’re almost matching our normal numbers daily, so I know our district is doing pretty well.
Claine requested his school not be named in this article to protect student privacy.
Director of student dining services for Cincinnati Public Schools, Ohio
I was actually in Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill about to talk to an Ohio senator about child nutrition programs when I got the call from my district that we were closing the schools because of a possible Covid-19 case and I should get on the first plane back to Cincinnati. This was March 10. Our schools didn’t actually close until March 16, but we started doing meals on that very next day, because we had spent so much time preplanning, getting deliveries in, figuring out our sites.
We’re a little different than most other districts, where they’re actually preparing meals in one of their school kitchens. Our district made the decision to close every single school building — they went in and did a massive cleaning of every single building and then sealed it so nobody can go in and possibly recontaminate it.
We’re working out of the test kitchen below our offices, so we’re capped at making 4,800 meals a day. I normally serve between 55,000 and 60,000 meals a day, but that can’t happen when all my schools are closed. What was imperative was our relationships with other community organizations, like UMC Food Ministry and Children’s Hunger Alliance, who were able to set up meal distribution at community centers — places of faith, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, libraries. With those partnerships, we were able to fill in gaps that we couldn’t do alone as a school district.
At some places, we are running out of food. That’s heartbreaking. We tell the kids, “Hold on, we’re going to get you something, just hold on.” Sometimes they’ll wait and sometimes they don’t. Other sites we just don’t have as much volume at, but we feel strongly about keeping those open because they’re in corners of our city that are very far away from the center. Our district is 92 square miles large. It’s a very spread-out community.
Our projected loss — this is painful — from March 16 to May 22, which is the end of our school year, is $2.4 million. We only get reimbursement money when we serve a meal. I am greatly decreased in the number of meals I’m serving, which means the amount of money I have coming in is very, very small. But almost all my fixed costs stay the same. Salary, electricity, water, garbage: All that stays the same. It’s going to totally change how I look at what I can and cannot offer.
I’ve been doing a lot of policy and advocacy. I’m hoping the USDA reimburses districts for their fixed costs. That would help a lot. In Houston, after Hurricane Harvey, the USDA came through and said, “All kids eat for free for the next four years. Don’t worry about applications, don’t worry about paperwork. Don’t worry about administrative red tape. Feed the kids.”
I’m really hoping they’re going to look at the country and say, “You know what, there are so many families that have lost income, that are on unemployment, that are struggling. Across the country, the next four years, everybody eats for free. Feed the kids, feed the nation, support our future, and let them all eat free.” That’s my pie-in-the-sky ask.
Director of nutrition for Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, Colorado
We’d had a really bad outbreak of norovirus last spring break — when I say really bad, we shut down at least three of our elementary schools and our alternative high school for multiple days. So, luckily and coincidentally, we’d given ourselves a year to come up with a contagion plan. We actually did a district leadership training back in January. Have you ever done those hand-washing demos where you put glow-in-the-dark powder on your hands and then you go wash them under blacklight? We’d just done that with 200 of our district administrators. We had no idea about coronavirus at that point.
Thank god for the contagion plan, because at the very least it gave us a structure to think about this — what would it look like if one building was closed? What would it look like if all the buildings were closed? What it did not have were plans for a long-term closure. That was not something we had anticipated. But it came in very handy that Friday before spring break when we found ourselves sitting down to say, what does it look like if spring break is two weeks long? That was our original plan — we’re going to extend spring break a week and see if this blows over.
At first we did drive-up distribution — stay in your car, ask how many kids are in your household — but there were way too many points of contact. It was taking three to four people per site, times 10 sites, plus drivers to deliver, plus people back at our production kitchen … it was just too many people. The second week, we moved to a bus route distribution. The buses still stop at those 10 schools in the loading zones and hand out meals to families, and they also run routes through the neighborhood.
We went from serving one day of breakfast and lunch at a time to three days of breakfast and lunch at a time. On Wednesdays, we’ve added two parking lot distributions where families can drive up and get the meals, as well as food from our local food bank. On Thursday and Friday, when we do our route, we’re handing out what are called backpacks. They’re basically a weekend bag. A local nonprofit will purchase ready-to-eat and shelf-stable food — think Cup Noodles. Not super nutrient-dense, but it’s food, and it’s food that a person as young as second grade can put together themselves without assistance from an adult.
The first week, when we did the drive-up distribution, we served about 15,000 meals total for the week, breakfast and lunch combined. Normally we serve 14,000 meals a day. I came home after I did the numbers on that Friday and absolutely broke down to my partner. We had a couple cocktails, and we got all of our angst out about it, and then I said, “Okay, how are we going to fix this?” So we switched to our bus routes. Last week, we served 42,000 meals, and it’s much closer to what we do in a normal school week.
I am immunocompromised, so I’m very conscious of my own health. I’m doing most of the things that I should be — my alcohol intake at the end of every day probably doesn’t help my immune system, but it’s my quarentini, so I go with it. I do feel safe. I feel like we’re doing all that we can with what we have right now to make sure that we’re continuing to nourish our students and ensure that our staff is cared for. Lunch ladies are not the kind of people who are going to sit at home through something like this.
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Author: Rachel Sugar