Loren Feldkamp flashed a warm smile to about a dozen cafeteria workers last week as they prepared lunches for more than 350 schoolchildren in northeastern Kansas.
Feldkamp, the superintendent of the Tonganoxie School District, thanked them each for their dedication to making the grab-and-go meals that were sustaining lines of children and parents. Nine school days earlier, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly had ordered all schools closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but school staff were still feeding kids.
“It was such a positive situation, in the middle of something none of us had ever experienced before,” Feldkamp said.
By Monday, though, Feldkamp’s pride had turned to concern as he posted a message to the district’s Facebook page: Like a growing number of school superintendents across the country, he told parents and students that he had to stop the district’s free and reduced-price meal program.
One of the food prep workers he thanked Thursday, February’s employee of the month, who Feldcamp called “one of the shining stars” among his staff, had become one of Kansas’ 370 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Sunday.
“No one feels worse about it than she does,” Feldkamp said of the worker, who is recovering at home. “But we had to shut it down. Too many people had been in contact. We felt it was an unsafe situation.”
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School district leaders in Houston, Memphis and parts of Louisiana and West Virginia have also suspended food distribution programs after workers either tested positive or were exposed to coronavirus. Others near Chicago, and in Detroit and Montgomery, Alabama, have cut back their distribution dates, times or locations.
About half of all U.S. public schoolchildren rely on free or reduced-price meals. Now, as school officials try to maintain emergency meal programs in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, they must choose between potentially allowing children to go hungry or risking exposing them to infection.
“This is not easy, and there will continue to be challenges as we move forward,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that works with more than 55,000 school food providers nationwide.
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A fear that children will go hungry
Results from a School Nutrition Association survey of nearly 1,800 school districts, conducted two weeks ago as schools had just begun to close, predicted the dilemma. More than 91% of those surveyed said they feared children in their districts would go hungry during the school shutdowns. About three quarters worried about the safety of students and families who received the meals.
Other top concerns included fears that regular school lunch programs would suffer from a loss of revenue and that food service workers would be furloughed and lose income.
Like Feldkamp’s district in Kansas, school officials in St. James Parish, Louisiana, had set up grab-and-go meal distribution stations at five schools in the district 50 miles west of New Orleans. But last week, they also stopped their program after announcing a school employee had tested positive for COVID-19.
In Detroit, school officials shut down the district’s distribution program for two days last week after employees there became sick. But they resumed the program late last week from 17 locations.
In other states, churches and nonprofits have stepped up when schools shuttered their meal programs. Shelby County Public Schools in Memphis shuttered its lunch program after a worker who was not involved in meal preparation tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, however, the YMCA of Memphis and the Mid-South took over the program, serving lunches from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. from 60 locations.
Even in districts where food distributions continued last week, school officials and community groups struggled to find innovative ways to reach the most students.
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Many benefited from support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which last year alone provided an estimated 141 million meals to students during winter, spring and summer school breaks.
The program’s guidelines also allow participants to receive meals during emergencies and natural disasters. And although the rules normally call for children to be served meals at specific times and require them to eat the meals at approved sites, the USDA has waived those requirements nationwide in response to the pandemic.
In Ohio, the Children’s Hunger Alliance had already stockpiled 18,000 meals from the program in anticipation of spring break in that state. When the governor closed schools a few days early, the group was ready.
The alliance teamed up with library systems to serve meals from branch parking lots, said Judy Mobley, the organization’s president and chief executive officer. A Hertz rental car office provided two vans for food delivery. The group also hopes to soon deliver meals to children in public housing who don’t have transportation to distribution centers at local schools.
“I don’t think we ever envisioned a scenario where we would just park a truck somewhere and advertise to feed children,” Mobley said, “but what’s happening is nothing we could have imagined either.”
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In Kansas, Feldkamp says he plans to reopen the district’s grab-and-go meal program in two weeks, after employees are sure they didn’t contract COVID-19.
In the meantime, other school districts have offered to serve his district’s students and parents. A local church has also offered help, joining other churches and religious organizations around the nation that have partnered with local food banks and invested their own resources to feed children.
As soon as Orange County, Florida, schools announced they would be closing until April 15, Pastor Dio Pouerie, who launched Acceleration Church three years ago with his wife, Tekoa, began looking for a way to help.
Using the church’s resources and help from the Second Harvest Food Bank in Orlando, church volunteers last Thursday served 100 breakfasts and lunches to local families at a drive-thru in the church parking lot. They advertised mostly through social media and word of mouth.
The couple, along with church members, colleagues and friends, were able to round up N-95 masks and gloves for their volunteers to wear. They practice all the same social distancing suggestions that schools have used, Poeurie said.
A grandmother who came for food burst into tears as church volunteers handed her bags full of muffins, sandwiches, milk, potatoes, fresh fruit and Frosted Mini-Wheats. Her daughter had just been laid off, and the two of them had been trying to figure out how they would feed her grandchildren until her daughter was able to work again.
“Whatever we have access to, as long as we have it, so will they,” Pouerie said.