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How US schools are (and aren’t) providing meals to children in the Covid-19 crisis

Parents rely on schools for children’s meals. Coronavirus has exposed the vulnerabilities of these programs. 

Two boys handle plastic bags of food from a woman at a table filled with bagged lunches.
Siblings Alexander Francisco, 6, and Jovani Francisco, 8, pick up meals in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 2020.
Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In an effort to keep children safe from the coronavirus pandemic, schools in the United States have shut down. Teachers have had to adapt by going online with classes to keep kids on schedule with their education, and other forms of distance learning — teachers holding office hours by phone, the distribution of learning packets, etc. — are being implemented. Essentially, educators are finding ways to ensure kids don’t need to go to a physical building to get schooled.

But there’s at least one big problem this presents.

Many students around the country rely on schools to provide free or low-cost meals. These meals — which speak to the country’s larger problem of income inequality — are a necessary staple for many families across the country.

On a typical school day, the National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free lunches to 29.7 million children. In New York City, the Department of Education offers free breakfast, lunch, and after-school meals to public school students during the school year. These low-cost and free options are even more imperative considering the record-shattering unemployment spike in the US.

With the shutdown of physical school, that option is gone and the US is scrambling to address this problem, on top of all the other problems the coronavirus pandemic presents.

During this pandemic, the White House has signaled that states need to take care of themselves without relying on the federal government when it comes to vital medical equipment, with Trump picking fights with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and saying New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exaggerating his state’s need for ventilators.

On Friday, his administration signaled that state and local officials may, similarly, need to handle the issue of school meals themselves.

“The truth is, many underprivileged kids would not be getting school meals, apart from the fact that, as we stand here today, our administration has approved waivers for all 50 states to give them flexibilities to work with local partners to get meals to children that are in need, and also a nationwide waiver to allow parents to pick up meals,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the briefing.

Pence was at Friday’s presidential briefing, joined by Sonny Perdue, the US secretary of agriculture, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“The federal government can’t do it all, but we got great partners out there in the food supply chain, as well as our food nutrition services, and our partners in our school nutrition services doing a great job to continue to get these meals to kids there,” Perdue said.

Perdue specifically addressed getting meals to kids. He cited a program with McLane Global, the Baylor Collaborative on Poverty and Hunger, and Pepsi that would “pack a million meals a week to deliver to our rural kids who might not get to town.”

According to the Baylor Collaborative, the meal delivery system will “contain five days of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet USDA’s summer food requirements.”

Perdue also introduced an initiative between Panera Bread and the Children’s Hunger Alliance to deliver meals in Columbus, Ohio. That collaboration is expected to go into effect on April 6.

While these programs sound great in theory, it is important to keep in mind that this administration has overpromised on a number of initiatives — particularly those involving corporate partnerships — during the coronavirus pandemic, including promoting a Google virus testing website that Google itself did not seem to be aware of and announcing testing centers at big-box retailers, something that has yet to come to fruition in any meaningful way.

Food pickup and delivery is a stopgap solution — but it’s all that’s available at the moment

The country’s focus on meal delivery highlights the bigger problem, which is schools providing meals via a grab-and-go process.

In New York City, meals are available at public schools to go. The same goes for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and major metropolitan public school systems. The issue therein is that the farther you get from these areas, the fewer options become available — hence the US involvement in promoting delivery programs.

There also might be an unforeseen problem in the current grab-and-go method: parents not being able to go to these meal stations at all. According to the City, an independent nonprofit news agency covering New York City, the number of parents taking advantage of free meals has dropped:

The program peaked at 199,483 meals distributed on March 19. Then it dropped to 159,635 last Friday, before hitting a low of 81,050 on Monday, when it rained. The figure rose to 111,887 Tuesday and 115,865 on Wednesday.

In perspective, around 600,000 meals are distributed daily when school is in session.

The lack of demand might not be that parents feel their children don’t need these meals, but that they are opting to social distance and keep their kids safe. Depending on the school district, some grab-and-go stations in the country require that a child be present or paperwork be required to obtain a meal.

These free meal stations and deliveries also put those who come in, make the food, and possibly deliver it at risk for exposure. In Fayette County in Kentucky, a public school employee involved in delivering meals recently tested positive for Covid-19 — an example of how fragile these solutions are.