School nutrition programs more necessary than ever

Short of any official playbook dictating how to provide healthy school meals to children during a pandemic, districts throughout California have scrambled to feed students — in many instances, more than ever — and implement meal delivery systems that allow for social distancing during extended school closures.

With some of the dust now settled, a May 19 webinar hosted by the California Department of Education Nutrition Services Division provided district food and nutrition directors, chief business officials and community partners an opportunity to share strategies for providing quality meals, addressing meal equity and building partnerships with agencies and organizations in their communities.

Though every district’s experience in responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19 has differed, a common thread among panelists’ experiences in the early months of school closures was the universal acknowledgement of the resounding importance of school nutritional services.

“We too often do not talk about schools as places in the community that keep students and families fed,” said Nate Mook, CEO of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which has partnered with Oakland Unified School District and Los Angeles USD to distribute meals to families. “I think this is a moment that needs to be embraced and uplifted. I think we’re finding now what happens when a situation like COVID-19 unfolds, and we are entirely reliant on our school systems to provide food to our communities.”

Oakland USD officials noted early challenges and concerns over a potential lack of food for children or staff to serve them all — all while the need for healthy meals was rapidly increasing. Preston Thomas, the district’s chief systems and service officer, said that in the initial eight weeks after schools shuttered their doors, more than 46,000 Oakland USD families filed for unemployment, meaning more students would likely face food insecurity.

With help from teachers and staff who volunteered to serve meals and partnerships with the Alameda County food bank and World Central Kitchen, Thomas said the district has been able to serve more breakfasts, lunches and dinners on any given day that it had prior to COVID-19.

“The two things on the education front that are going to be with us for a while are distance learning and supporting our students in giving them access to quality, healthy foods,” Thomas said, noting that districts will continue to come up against barriers that they will have to overcome. “The environment is constantly changing and you have to keep evolving depending on the conditions on the ground. We have to set the expectation for change in uncertainty.”

As job loss grows, so does the need for school meals among families

The California Employment Development Department had processed 4.7 million unemployment benefit claims since the week ending March 14, representing an unemployment rate of close to 25 percent, Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a May 14 press briefing. Just two months ago, the statewide unemployment rate was a little over 5 percent.

As more children begin to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, district budgets are likely to be stretched even thinner than they were prior to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. A School Nutrition Association survey of nearly 1,900 districts nationwide found that 90 percent of school nutrition directors were at least moderately concerned over financial losses to their district’s school nutrition program. And though it was a slight decrease from an association survey conducted in March, 86 percent of respondents still said they were at least moderately concerned that students were going hungry.

To help offset the impact of COVID-19 on child hunger, the United States Department of Agriculture announced on May 15 that it was extending three key waivers from rules for school meal programs until Aug. 31 so that schools can continue feeding students affected by closures this summer. The waivers, which address the areas of non-congregate feeding, parent pickup and meal times, were set to expire June 30.

In California, families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at their schools — regardless of immigration status — can apply for a Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer card, or P-EBT, from the Department of Social Services.

The first allocation of the one-time food stamps, which hold credits of up to $365 per child to help cover the cost of groceries, were distributed the week of May 11 to families receiving CalFresh, Medi-Cal or foster care benefits as a supplement to their EBT card.

Low-income families can apply for the second phase of P-EBT distribution starting May 22 at The deadline to apply is June 30.