Adilene Torres usually spends her days overseeing after-school programs in the central and eastern regions of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But now, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, she’s helping to coordinate meal distribution at Narbonne High School in the Harbor City community — one of 60 “grab-and-go” meal sites operating throughout the nation’s second largest school district.
With other “Beyond the Bell” staff members handing bags of food to drivers as they pull up to the canopies, she’s just one of roughly 1,200 staff members and volunteers working to make sure students — and often other family members — are still receiving meals while schools are closed.
“We’re not turning anyone away,” said Peter Hastings, the administrator of operations for LAUSD’s Local District South. Some drivers, he said, have taken home as many as 10 bags of food.
Red Cross volunteers are also helping direct traffic, get carts of food from the kitchen to the meal stations and anything else that’s needed.
And if schools in California do remain closed until the end of the academic year — as Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested — the meal distribution process will likely become even more routine, Hastings said.
“It’s been uplifting to have all these volunteers come together to serve our community,” added Alma Kimura, who oversees instruction at schools in the Local District South communities of Harbor City and Lomita. “But volunteers get tired.”
Putting waivers to use
All 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve school meals in “non-congregate settings” and to use the Summer Food Service Program and the “Seamless Summer Option.” These programs allow schools to serve two meals at a time as they, and other community-based organizations, do during summer vacation.
The flexibility approved last week also waives certain menu requirements for meals, which could be useful if any "food supply issues pop up," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.
Before the waivers were approved, school nutrition providers expressed concerns about getting meals to students as well as over the “long-term impact of financial losses for school meal programs,” according to a SNA survey of 1,769 school districts.
Respondents also cited concerns about the loss of income for school nutrition staff members furloughed during the closures. While they were less concerned about distribution and product availability, the concern was still there. "We will also be watching out for any supply issues with gloves [and] packaging supplies for all these grab and go meals," Pratt-Heavner said.
Responses to open-ended questions communicate the confusion during the initial closures, when nutrition program administrators were unsure how to respond if they didn’t already qualify for summer food programs.
“We couldn't get clear guidance from anyone at the state level,” one respondent wrote. “Since we don't qualify for SFSP, we opted to provide the bags and will bill our district. This is not ideal but we had to react quickly and didn't have time to wait for USDA to come up with variances.”
Across the country, in Boston Public Schools — which normally serves free meals to all students under the Community Eligibility Provision — participation was less than expected early last week, likely because of snowy weather. As the sun came out, so did families to pick up meals, said Laura Benavidez, the executive director of food and nutrition services for BPS, which has 16 distribution sites.
“We know there is a need,” Benavidez said, but added “the need shifts” as families get used to a new routine. She said meal sites were also allowing families to take meals for multiple days so they didn’t need to come through the line every day.
The San Francisco Unified School District is also headed in that direction, according to Jennifer LeBarre, executive director for student nutrition services. Allowing families to pick up meals every few days will also help them practice social distancing guidelines, she said.
SFUSD and the district’s meal provider, Revolution Foods, are navigating the new service model.
“There is no playbook on how to feed children under these new circumstances, so we are learning together,” she said. “The situation in San Francisco continues to evolve. Once we make a plan, something changes, and we’re having to quickly adapt to the new guidance.”
A local foundation has also donated funds to cover evening meals for almost 6,000 students in the district. And over the course of last week, organizations such as No Kid Hungry and the Boys and Girls Clubs organized to provide meals while students are out of school.
Increasing need for meals
When word came at 11:43 p.m. on a Thursday night that Fairfax County Public Schools in Virignia would be closed beginning the next day, there were "only a couple of hours" to pick sites, deploy staff and prepare grab-and-go meals, said Lucy Caldwell, the district's director of news and information.
The unexpected hustle meant students who depend on school meals missed out on breakfast on the first day of the district's closure.
But since then, Fairfax quickly expanded meal distribution and reached an increasing number of students. What began as five grab-and-go sites that served 1,401 meals on the first day as part of an emergency food plan increased a week later to 34 distribution sites, two additional curbside pickup locations, 12 bus routes offering delivery-style meals, and 10 additional "pop-up" locations throughout the district that served approximately 8,200 meals in one day.
Principal Wiatta Padmore of London Towne Elementary School, one of the distribution sites, said this upward trend could remain as closures extend. "It will most likely get worse before it gets better," Padmore said, pointing out that the need is increasing "every day."
"We might have to feed more families here," Padmore said.
But the district is worried if the virus worsens, it may not have enough staff to work at the distribution sites. So far, though, that has not been a problem.
"The biggest hurdle is trying to manage and react in an environment that is changing daily," said Caldwell, adding that, as a result, site approval and meal distribution decisions are being made "quickly."
"The entire division is really working towards making the [meals] situation as normal as it can so that learning can continue," Padmore said.
There are still some gray areas, though. On a normal Friday, Padmore's school usually provides extra meals to 200 families as part of a weekend food program. But since the district is still "technically closed" with remote learning, those families aren't getting weekend meals.
And weekend meals may not necessarily resume even if the district does reopen with remote instruction, considering the school depends on community partners like local religious groups to provide them. "It requires manpower and I don't know where that is right now," Padmore said, echoing that there is "no roadmap" to navigate through a pandemic.
LeBarre, like every other school nutrition administrator across the country, said she’s never had to prepare for anything on this scale. But she’s taking notes as she goes.
“We’re documenting our learnings carefully,” she said, “so we have training materials and guidelines on how to provide emergency meals in the future.”