Even though schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, many of their cafeterias are still preparing lunches. Instead of a line of students with trays, workers serve meals drive-thru-style to a rolling line of vehicles.
At Austin High School in El Paso, Texas, cafeteria manager Reyna Trejo and her staff wear face masks, gloves, and long plastic aprons. They stand outside the school building under a radiant spring sky with rolling carts holding the day’s bagged meals. It’s difficult to communicate effectively with the masks on, so Trejo holds up a finger count to confirm how many meals each driver is requesting. She reminds people, “Roll your windows up!” as they drive off.
According to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group that works with school food providers, about 22 million children normally receive a free or reduced-price lunch every day in the nation’s public schools. In some high-need areas like New York City and Detroit, where the vast majority of students qualify for the federally subsidized meals, concerns about ongoing nutrition outweighed those over lost learning when COVID-19 forced schools to close.
As part of the closure plan, the federal government instructed schools to run their cafeteria programs under existing summer feeding guidelines. Those guidelines offer more flexibility than the school-year rules: Families do not need to disclose their incomes or prove school district residency to receive food.
Many school cafeterias transitioned seamlessly to the new model. But others ran into trouble within days of operation. Detroit Public Schools distributed more than 70,000 meals out of 58 locations the first week of its COVID-19 closure but was forced to change its game plan after an employee tested positive for the disease and others called in sick.
The district reduced the number of its distribution sites to 17 and limited service to just two days per week. Cafeteria workers now hand out several days’ worth of meals at a time, a compromise that keeps the food rolling and the workers safe.
Officials at Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools expanded their feeding program after experiencing higher-than-expected demand the first week. They added several dozen distribution sites, as well as bus delivery routes.
Other states also are using school buses to deliver food. North Carolina’s Kent Messick recently found himself trailing behind one such delivery bus in his Ford pickup truck about an hour north of Charlotte near his family farm. He wondered at first what it was doing out on the road: “The school bus stopped, the stop sign came out and the flashers were on and I said, ‘They’re here to deliver some food to this house.’”
He saw a woman walk down the small home’s rutted drive while a little girl waited on the front porch. Someone on the bus handed the mother a plastic bag filled with food.
“And it just really pierced my heart to see her on that front porch waiting for her mother to bring that food back,” Messick said, remembering his own experience at the local elementary school more than 50 years ago. “There’s always some kids that depended upon one good meal that they got at school each day.”