School meals: A lifeline for many during COVID-19 - AZEdNews
Sections    Thursday March 30th, 2023

School meals: A lifeline for many during COVID-19

A Family Picks Up Meals For Students From Bullhead City Elementary School District At A Bus Stop Near Their Home. Photo Courtesy Bullhead City Elementary School District

Districts found creative ways to bring students school meals after campuses closed in March for COVID-19.

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Dr. Anabel Aportela

Those meals became a lifeline for children of the 1 million Arizonans who collected unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic, and the 400,000 who continue to do so today.  

The most recent data from the Arizona Department of Education for the 2018-2019 school year shows that Arizona public district and charter schools served students 50.76 million breakfasts, 103.31 million lunches and 15.16 million snacks or a la carte items, said Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Statewide, those student meal items were made from $23.08 million in donated food commodities from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and from $22.24 million in school district and charter school’s food service expenditure funds, according to the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2019.

The power of our social safety net, including our school communities and nonprofit programs, has always been remarkable, but this crisis has revealed that these programs help to literally save lives when all else fails,” said Liz Salazar, policy advisor in Arizona for UnidosUS.

“A food insecure student cannot learn. Anyone who has taught a class right before lunch knows that hungry kids have a hard time learning,” Salazar said.

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Liz Salazar

“However, chronically hungry or malnourished kids don’t just fail to learn a few lessons, they fail to thrive in general,” Salazar said.

“These nutrition programs are absolutely essential to ensure we mitigate the learning loss and trauma our kids, especially our most vulnerable kids, will have to surmount in the coming school year,” Salazar said.

Related article:
Job losses, pay cuts make school meals essential

Some schools bring meals to students

Bullhead City Elementary School District and Baboquivari Unified School District used school buses to bring meals to students at bus stops close to their homes.

“The number of meals distributed increased significantly when we moved from grab and go to neighborhood delivery in the spring, consistent with easier access for all families, particularly those with no means of transportation,” said Lance Ross, public and community relations director and public information officer for Bullhead City Elementary and Colorado River Union High School districts in Mohave County.

Another factor in the increase was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s relaxation of National School Lunch, School Breakfast and Summer Meal Programs regulations that made meals available for all children under 18 years of age – not just school age children – as well as for families whose children attend charter schools, which did not provide meals during school closures, Ross said.

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Bullhead City food and nutrition services staff deliver meals to students by bus. Photo courtesy Bullhead City Elementary School District

That means, “we can reach kids that maybe wouldn’t have eaten with us before and help the families that may not qualify for free meals but are struggling financially as a result of COVID-19,” said Sandra Schossow, director of food and nutrition for Peoria Unified School District.

“As a result of USDA’s recent announcement, we’ll be able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all our students and have limited curbside locations for our community and our students choosing to continue learning at home,” Schossow said.

The USDA’s recent move for these programs – which have received bipartisan support since first passed by Congress in 1946 – came after receiving letters from around the country and two from Arizona signed by a significant number of school districts and other agencies that participate in the National School Lunch Program.

“Grab and go and the new rules have made it simpler for families to receive the meals they need. The flexibility provisions provide us the opportunity to distribute and reach more families,” said Colorado River Union High School District Supt. Todd Flora, Ed. S.

It also lets school districts continue to serve distance learning students once in-person classes resume, helps parents with students in more than one school or district and assists grandparents caring for students while parents work, Ross said.  

Baboquivari Unified School District also provided student meals by using “the same bus stop schedule and asked families/students to come out to bus stop at scheduled time to pick up their meals,” said Supt. Dr. Edna Morris.

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Indian Oasis Elementary first grader Noland Draper receives a school meal at a Baboquivari Unified bus stop near his home. Photo courtesy Baboquivari Unified School District

Baboquivari Unified, which serves students living in Sells and the Tohono O’odham Nation, takes part in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program and provides all students free breakfast and lunch, Dr. Morris said.  

“Once we go back to on-site instruction, we will still continue to deliver meals at bus stops as some families have elected to go virtual all year long,” Dr. Morris said. “For those that attend onsite, meals will be delivered to the classroom.”

Baboquivari Unified’s challenge is that meal deliveries take place when students are learning online, which means they may not have time to break away and go to the bus stops to pick up their meals.

“I am not sure how we can fix this unless we deliver later in the day, and that would mean they would not eat on time and may be hungry while trying to learn online,” Dr. Morris said.  

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From left to right: Stacy Antone, bus driver; Myla Manuel, kitchen manager; Rozanne Lejero, food service liaison; Mark Martin, food service director; and Thomas Murphy, bus driver. Photo courtesy Baboquivari Unified School District

“Schools have stepped up more than ever to become community hubs during this pandemic,” said Leigh Jensen, Arizona School Boards Association governmental relations associate. “Schools are of course offering meal services, but also tech support, social/emotional triage with referrals out to the appropriate professionals when students or families stop by campus and it’s clear they’re struggling with bigger issues.”

“Some really great examples of educators going above and beyond the call of duty will be a lasting silver lining to come out of this whole situation,” Jensen said.

How student meal delivery evolved

Since schools closed on March 16 due to COVID-19, Arizona school districts food and nutrition teams, including those in Peoria Unified School District and Yuma Elementary School District One, worked hard to ensure that no student went hungry.

Peoria Unified provided daily hot lunches with a breakfast to go for our community, said Sandra Schossow, director of food and nutrition for the district that serves 36,000 students in Maricopa County.

“Families walked, rode or drove up to the curb and the food and nutrition employees gave them all their meals,” Schossow said. “Our families and children loved having the chance to connect to our staff, especially when school first closed.  It gave them a sense of routine and normalcy.” 

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Peoria Unified food and nutrition staff serve meals to student’s families curbside on campus. Photo courtesy Peoria Unified School District

Forty two percent of the students that go to Peoria Unified’s 34 elementary schools, seven high schools and one non-traditional high school qualify for free-or reduced-price lunch. Schools range from 9 percent up to 75 percent, and seven schools provide free breakfast to all students.

“When a student who isn’t normally on free and reduced lunch eats our meals, they are not taking anything away from another student,” Schossow said. “Our programs need participation by students to ensure they have a healthy meal and to make up from the financial loss to our program.”

School meal programs only receive funding when they sell meals, Schossow said.

“Just like a restaurant can’t pay their bills without customers, the school nutrition program needs customers,” Schossow said.

“To give you some perspective, due to low participation when we weren’t allowed to offer free meals to everyone and school not being physically in session, we only received about $100,000 of the almost $1,000,000 we normally receive in revenue in just August alone,” Schossow said.

“As you can see, we are looking forward to a bump in participation when students return to school and the ability to continue to feed our community,” Schossow said.

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Yuma Elementary’s Child Nutrition Team serves Grab & Go student meals outside campus. Photo courtesy Yuma Elementary School District One

Yuma Elementary’s Child Nutrition Team has worked tirelessly to make sure all students were fed, regardless of their situation at home,” said Christine McCoy, communications and community engagement coordinator for the district serving over 8,000 students in Yuma County.

About 78 percent of students that attend Yuma One’s 13 elementary and five middle schools qualify for free- and reduced-price meals.

“Staff worked continuously through July 24th – the end of the summer food program – to continue feeding over 25 percent of the normal enrollment in the spring,” McCoy said. When in-person classes closed in March, Yuma Elementary School District One’s Child Nutrition team prepared daily meals that parents could pickup in their vehicles curbside at schools for any student 18 years old or younger regardless of the school they attended, McCoy said.

“District One has received amazing feedback and gratitude from parents. Especially during the spring when food was difficult to find at local grocery stores, our service was essential to families,” McCoy said.

Since March, there has been “an outpouring of support on social media by both parents and district staff members, shining a well-deserved spotlight on our dedicated cafeteria staff,” McCoy said.

“In April, we began providing meals for five days during a single weekly pickup, so parents would only need to visit once per week,” McCoy said. “Curbside Grab ‘n Go service worked well, but warmer weather quickly began to impact this process.”

Beginning in June, Yuma District One began offering Grab ‘n Go meals inside the cafeteria, which “allowed staff to provide higher quality meals since the food would remain indoors,” McCoy said.

“District One’s Child Nutrition Department has provided high quality Grab ‘n Go meals to K-8 students for the past 7 months,” said Elizabeth Thrower, director of child nutrition for Yuma Elementary School District One.

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Some of the thank you notes Yuma Elementary’s Child Nutrition team has received since schools closed due to COVID-19. Photo courtesy Yuma Elementary School District One

“Our staff continues to give 100 percent, while caring for their own students learning from home. We will try our best to make sure our children do not go without essential meals during this pandemic,” Thrower said.

Since school started on Aug. 3, participation has been lower, so the district increased outreach to let families know meals are still available during distance learning, McCoy said.

“Students who are learning remotely may pick up a Grab ‘n Go breakfast and lunch combo each day by entering the cafeteria. Face masks and social distancing are required during pickup, and meals may not be consumed on site,” McCoy said. “Students learning on campus eat their breakfast and lunch in the classroom, or learning space, to limit large gatherings in the cafeteria.”

When more students are on campus, Yuma Elementary School District One’s Child Nutrition team would like to increase the ability to deliver meals to the classroom,  which “would prevent the need for students to pick up their meals from the cafeteria. Instead, staff could use carts and coolers to deliver meals to each class,” McCoy said.

The nutrition staff at Yuma Elementary School District One have remained committed to providing essential meals to all students during this difficult time, McCoy said.

“We are proud of their dedication and innovation to find the most efficient ways to make these meals readily available to families,” McCoy said.

Teachers and school staff know that what happens in a classroom is only one component of an entire ecosystem that affects a student’s ability to thrive, Salazar said.

“Taking care of ALL people in Arizona shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Taking care of one another is the only way we’ll make it out on the other side of this better than we were before,” Salazar said.

Related article:
Job losses, pay cuts make school meals essential

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Yuma Elementary’s Child Nutrition Team celebrates another successful Grab & Go student meal service. Photo courtesy Yuma Elementary School District One