Schools struggle to safely get free meals to needy students amid COVID-19 crisis

When schools started closing across the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, they scrambled to keep feeding millions of students from poor families who depend on free and reduced-price meals every day.

Cities big and small quickly ran into problems: food workers, teachers and volunteers manning curbside pickup locations came down with the virus themselves or were too scared to report for duty. Some districts have been forced to suspend their programs altogether.

That's left families already struggling to put food on the table more desperate and schools searching for ways to keep serving those in need safely. Among the biggest school districts to suspend its federally assisted meal program was in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, after a worker was exposed to the coronavirus.

“We said, ‘Oh, my God, we have to close down because we don’t know what’s happening,'" said Betti Wiggins, nutrition services officer for the Houston Independent School District.

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It stopped giving out meals for more than a week. When the program reopened this week, it had a new way of packaging and handing out food. Instead of providing small meals every day citywide, the district now has fewer, centralized locations where people pick up 30-pound bags stuffed with chicken, potatoes, apples, juice and more. They're designed to last a family of four several days.

Among those getting food this week was Maria Robles, who arrived two hours before pickup opened — at 7 a.m. — and the line of cars behind her already stretched for more than a mile. Some without cars pick up food in anything they can, including baby strollers.

Robles, 49, is unemployed and depends on the meals to help feed her teenage son, who typically eats twice a day at school. Plus, her house is now crowded with four more children after her niece saw her work hours slashed and moved in.

When Houston schools temporarily halted meals, Robles' family went to food banks, where pickings were often slim.

“Food is scarce right now," Robles said, fighting back tears. “It’s hard for the adults because we have to see our children go through it. ... It has gotten real scary. There are times I will not eat to make sure they will get something.”

During a normal school day, about 22 million students nationwide receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that works with more than 55,000 school food providers.

The group surveyed about 1,800 members just as schools began to close in mid-March, and their top concerns were children going hungry and protecting the safety of staff and families receiving food.

The problems have affected rural and urban districts alike.

Detroit, which has been hit hard with a surge of coronavirus cases, shut down its meal program for two days last month when a worker tested positive. Like Houston, it reopened with a drastically reduced number of places to pick up food.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the state’s largest school district limited food pickup to once a week at school bus stops after staffers began to worry about their exposure to the virus.

Schools in Durham, North Carolina, and nearby Johnson County suspended their meal programs last week after an employee tested positive.

Other regions hit with closures include Memphis, Tennessee, parts of Louisiana, California and south Texas.

Houston restarted its program after packing food bags in one place and reducing the number of workers needed. There are fewer places to pick up meals, but they rotate through the city every day. Workers put bags into cars to reduce interaction, said Wiggins, the schools' nutrition officer.

“Some of these curbside distributions were uncontrollable. Volunteers were coming out of the woodwork,” Wiggins said. “You can’t handle the food like you were at a picnic. I think we’ll be more successful on this outing."

But small school districts may struggle to duplicate Houston’s model, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association. They may not have enough staffers or the facilities to prepare meals with proper social distancing, she said.

Many programs have avoided any shutdowns so far.

Austin High School Principal Cyndi Severns-Ponce said she’s confident the program in El Paso, Texas, has enough workers trained to quickly step in if anyone gets sick.

On a recent afternoon, school cafeteria manager Reyna Trejo and food specialist Elva Rangel donned face masks, gloves and long plastic aprons as cars drove up. Trejo held up two fingers to confirm how many meals were needed and told a driver: “Roll your windows up!”

Any meal shutdown would be a problem, which would only get worse if job losses spike.

That's what Viola Jones sees in her Houston neighborhood.

“People have to make a decision: Do I buy food? Do I pay rent?” Jones said as she picked up meals this week.

“People were going hungry even before this. Now with children out of school, more food is needed," Jones said. "Living from paycheck to paycheck before this was already hard. Now it’s even harder.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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