Among the many changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the transformation in how schools are educating and caring for kids is one of the biggest. Before the pandemic, school food programs played an enormous role in meeting children’s nutritional needs. Feeding America reports that 22 million American children received free or reduced-price food at school.
Schools recognized immediately that many students would go hungry unless school feeding programs could keep operating as schools closed late last winter. In a remarkable shift, they retooled their operations to get food to kids at home. School food service staff demonstrated enormous commitment and creativity and were joined in this effort by a wide range of community partners.
Many schools are now providing enough food to feed kids 18 and under two or three meals a day, seven days a week, for free. School dining service staff are preparing meals that can safely be packed up, trucked across town, handed out to families, and reheated or cooked and served at home.
They are also working hard to get the word out to parents and families, many of whom now have to show up at a distribution site several days a week during limited hours in order to pick up school meals, all while juggling their own work responsibilities and their kids’ remote or hybrid school schedules.
Although prepackaged food offers obvious advantages in this situation, districts in our region were eager to maintain their scratch-cooking programs and to continue to source fresh food from local farms.
In Springfield, meeting these goals was made easier by a state COVID-response grant, which funded purchase of a refrigerated truck and a packing line that allows the school to safely and efficiently pack food they’ve cooked from scratch. This includes, for example, a chicken and bean tostada made with local Mi Tierra tortillas. Once this new equipment was up and running, Springfield was able to increase its purchases from Joe Czajkowski Farm, farming on land recently purchased by The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
Grant funding from several foundations also helped fill gaps in Springfield, and its busing company, Van Pool, pivoted from driving kids to schools to driving meals to homeless families across the region who are served by the Springfield schools’ dining program.
Springfield Public Schools has also worked with partners to co-locate food distributions, allowing families to make one trip to pick up school food for their kids and food for other family members supplied by other agencies, including Oasis Food Pantry and Lancaster-based World Farmers, in a partnership facilitated by the Springfield Food Policy Council.
Similarly, in Northampton, Grow Food Northampton sets up side-by-side with the Northampton Public Schools, allowing one-stop pick up for families. Community donations have funded purchases from local farms, and these local fruits and vegetables are funneled to the community through several programs: directly into school meals prepared by the Northampton schools, into boxes packed by Grow Food Northampton and the Northampton Survival Center, and into meals prepared by local restaurants, spearheaded by Belly of the Beast, to serve adults.
Coordinated purchase and pick up from local farms increases the efficiency of this effort, while the availability of local vegetables and fruits has helped alleviate significant national supply chain challenges.
In addition to central distribution sites, Greenfield Public Schools offers door-to-door meal delivery for families that are unable to pick up at a central location, with help from the city’s Transportation Department. A grant from Dean’s Beans has also helped Greenfield manage pandemic-related changes.
School Food Service Director Eliza Calkins notes that they also rely on Hadley’s Joe Czajkowski Farm for local produce, and particularly appreciate that the farm aggregates from several other farms through one easy-to-use ordering system.
Thanks to a waiver from the USDA, many schools can serve all children and youth under 18 free meals, regardless of income, residence, or school enrollment. Just like local farmers, school dining service staff and their community partners have responded to the pandemic, and the threats it has presented to our region’s food security, with adept problem-solving and heroic dedication.
Nonetheless, the extra hurdles of off-site pick-up mean that school food participation is down from previous years. This trend worries school dining service directors, who point out that all families have been hit with increases to their food budgets.
Northampton’s Mistelle Hannah notes, “the kids are home all the time, and they eat All. Day. Long. Any family could use a little help with their grocery bill in those circumstances.”
Increased participation helps sustain this essential community effort, because schools are reimbursed based on participation numbers, and a larger budget gives schools more options and flexibility to pay staff, buy from local farmers, and manage the new challenges related to the pandemic.
If you’ve got school-aged kids, stop in, grab a meal, and see what they’re cooking!
Margaret Christie is the special projects director at CISA.