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Many school districts across California were getting used to a new normal this week of closed schools and delivering lunch and breakfast to students who are normally fed in their schools.
With nearly all districts shutdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, officials statewide hastily put in place plans to deliver “grab-and-go” meals with minimal contact between cafeteria staff, volunteers and families in need.
Districts from Sacramento to Oakland, West Contra Costa and South San Jose — many of which closed starting on Monday — mobilized to distribute packaged food, sometimes for more than one day. Their goal was to help families cope as many parents and guardians lose jobs or see their hours cut back. Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, delayed distribution to Wednesday so they could make sure that the logistics would allow adults to pick up food without being in contact with others.
In interviews, parents and school officials said they saw the food as a lifeline for families.
“It’s very comforting, because sometimes there isn’t enough food in the house, and here we can take food, take breakfast and milk,” said Christina Resendez as she collected food with her daughter, Emily Resendez, at the West Oakland Middle School, one of 12 schools in the Oakland Unified School District where “grab and go” meals were being served.
“It gives us peace of mind,” added Emily, an eighth-grade student at Lazear Charter Academy in Oakland.
As of Tuesday, the school closures affected more than six million students in California with about half of them eligible for free and reduced lunches for those who are low-income. In addition, nearly 200,000 are homeless and nearly 30,000 are foster students.
Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said continuing to provide food to students during the closure is critical for the district.
“We already know that many students rely on [school-provided] lunches and breakfasts as part of their sustenance so really ensuring that we had some structures in place to be able to distribute food felt like an essential part of our planning for school closures for however long we’re in this situation,” Johnson-Trammell said.
Oakland Unified handed out nearly 25,000 free meals to more than 4,000 families on Monday, district officials said. The meals were supplemented by around 1,400 bags of groceries from the Alameda County Food Bank. On Thursday, the district handed out around 50,000 meals to nearly 11,000 families, officials said.
For many districts like West Contra Costa and Oakland Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area, they replicated what they do during the summers. For many others that don’t have summer lunch programs, the challenge has been to set something up that works, while heeding warnings to keep people at least six feet apart and to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
The California Department of Education received a special waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture last week that allows schools that previously operated summer food service programs to use federal funds to continue serving food during a coronavirus-related closure.
Most schools visited by EdSource reporters had free meal pick up spots at a handful of campuses where adults could either drive up or walk up to get meals for the children. There was no check-in or list checking. Volunteers distributed food for multiple meals for all children in a family.
One of the top concerns among school authorities this week was preventing the spread of the coronavirus while parents and children picked up food. At Richmond High School and Pinole Valley High School in West Contra Costa Unified, volunteers wore gloves and face masks while handing out food. Parents were encouraged to stay in their cars while staff handed them food through the open window.
Richmond High School is one of nine West Contra Costa Unified School District schools serving food to families this week. Volunteers — including teachers and school board president Tom Panas — passed out breakfast and lunch to people who either walked up or drove up to Richmond High School on Monday afternoon. District nutrition supervisor Nadine Ahola said the volunteers passed out more than 300 bagged breakfasts and lunches in an hour.
“We’re talking about thousands of kids who have lost their most stable food during the day, so it’s a super big concern …” said Gabriel Chilcott, principal of Richmond’s Mira Vista Elementary School. “Food security is number one: you need your health and your safety before you get to the point of being able to learn.”
Maria Salinas, who picked up breakfast for her two sons Monday at Richmond High School, said it has been tough to get to the grocery store right now since her sons have special needs and are unable to wait in line for long. Being able to walk up to the school and get food for her children was a huge help, she said.
Panas, who was wearing gloves and a face mask, said social distancing was top of the mind for volunteers on Monday, but he wasn’t too concerned that they would contract the virus.
“We’re taking all the precautions we can, but this is our community, right, we need to serve them,” Panas said.
Both Oakland and West Contra Costa serve thousands of students who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch during the school year. Of the more than 50,000 students in Oakland in 2018-19 — the most recent year available — both in district-run public schools and charter schools, 73 percent qualified for free and reduced priced meals. In West Contra Costa, which had close to 32,000 students in district-run public schools, about 70 percent qualified. That compares to about 60 percent of students statewide.
Volunteers distributed the food differently at each site. At West Oakland Middle School, plastic-bagged meals were laid out on a table and administrators told parents to add them to their grocery bags or coolers. At Pinole Valley and Richmond High, people who arrived by car or on foot were offered bagged meals of sandwiches, parfaits, a side of chips and some fruit.
For breakfast, the students in Oakland were offered cereal, juice and fruit, and for lunch they were offered BBQ beef rib sandwiches or a ham and cheese plate with a side of beans, milk and fruit.
At Pinole Valley High School, the breakfast option was cereal with fruit and juice and the lunch options included turkey sandwiches, salads and a fruit parfait for vegetarians.
Since eating at the sites was not allowed, all of the food was served cold.
Almost every school district in the Sacramento region is now serving meals to their students despite school closures. Most districts are passing out the meals at lunchtime as families drive through the bus lane or park in school lots.
Families collecting lunches from American Lakes Elementary School in the Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento got a little more than expected Monday when district staff passed out books, toothbrush kits and food care packages along with their lunch and breakfast. The extras were courtesy of corporate donors, including the Sacramento Kings basketball team. Most of the students attending American Lakes are from low-income families.
“Until the state figures out what happens to schools we think it is important to feed kids breakfast and lunch and give them a book to read,” said district Superintendent Chris Evans.
Also serving meals are other large Sacramento County districts including Elk Grove Unified, which serves 64,000 students in southern Sacramento County; Twin Rivers Unified in Sacramento; Sacramento City Unified School District and San Juan Unified, in Carmichael.
Tiny Robla School District of 2,500 students is taking the drive-up concept to another level by bringing the meals to students at designated stops throughout the community with its Breakfast on Wheels and Lunch on Wheels programs.
Folsom-Cordova Unified in Folsom planned to start offering individually wrapped, “grab and go” meals for any student 18 and younger at several locations Tuesday.
At Los Paseos Elementary in South San Jose, the school’s nutrition team gave out lunch for Monday and breakfast for Tuesday to any student who asked for it.
Most families drove up and they were handed the food. The volunteers prepared for 200 but saw only 92 on this first day of the food program. They were telling everyone who came to tell others.
“I got choked up in the beginning when I was doing this because people were saying ‘thank you for doing this’ — you can see there is a need,” said Mary Salas, volunteer.
Los Angeles on Wednesday plans to open 60 grab-and-go locations in family resource centers across the district, stretching from Wilmington in the Los Angeles Harbor to the San Fernando Valley. Families will be able to pick up two meals a day for their children.
Many students in L.A. Unified rely on schools for meals. About 80 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“Los Angeles Unified serves a high-need population and our schools provide a social safety net for children,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said.
* EdSource staffers Michael Burke, Diane Lambert, Daniel Willis and Smita Patel contributed to this story.