The Jordan family — two parents and five children ages 3,6,8,9 and 10 — streamed into the cafeteria at the Columbia Heights Education Campus and made a beeline for the chicken nuggets sitting under heat lamps.
“This is good,” said Gonnie Jordan, 6, who gave two thumbs up between bites of nuggets, a biscuit, corn and broccoli. His wide grin revealed a missing lower tooth.
District of Columbia Public Schools were officially closed on Monday in the wake of the weekend’s blizzard, but the cafeterias in 10 schools around the city were open for business, ready to feed breakfast and lunch to any hungry child.
DCPS opens food centers in schools during the summer to help children who rely on schools for federally subsidized meals, but Monday marked the first time the school district offered free meals during a weather-related closure. School officials and teachers in neighboring school districts were similarly concerned about what the snow days would mean for students from low-income families, but none of them offer a similar program.
The Loudoun County school district regularly distributes bags of food to children from qualifying families on Fridays to ensure children have enough to eat over the weekend; spokesman Wayde Byard said some schools distributed the food Thursday ahead of the blizzard.
Montgomery and Prince George’s schools will be closed again Tuesday and Arlington schools will remain shuttered through at least Wednesday while crews clear as much as two feet of snow from area roads. D.C. schools also will be closed Tuesday; officials say they plan to reopen the meal centers from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“It comes in handy,” said Rahnell Jordan, 32, whose family is homeless and has been placed temporarily in a Silver Spring hotel equipped with a small refrigerator and microwave but no stove or oven. Since the blizzard hit, the family has been subsisting on food from the nearby 7-Eleven, he said: “Mostly noodles.”
Jordan learned about the DCPS feeding centers on television Monday morning. He and his wife, Crystal, bundled up their five children and took Metro to Columbia Heights. The children usually eat free breakfast and lunch at their D.C. elementary school.
Both parents work; he in the kitchen at an elementary school in Prince George’s County and she in the kitchen at the National Zoo.
“We know that many of our families are heavily reliant on us to provide adequate nutrition for their kids,” said Nathaniel Beers, chief operating officer at DCPS, where an estimated 75 percent to 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
As school and city officials were contemplating school closures for Monday, they realized students would be without school-provided meals for four days in a row, since school had been canceled Friday.
In a matter of hours, they pulled together a plan to open 10 schools in neighborhoods with high need, and which students and staff could reach with minimal difficulty, Beers said.
An estimated 502 breakfasts and lunches were served in the 10 schools, he said. Volume ranged from 20 meals at Brookland Middle School to 168 meals served at Anacostia High School.
At Columbia Heights Education Campus, three breakfasts and 42 lunches were served to about a dozen students along with several homeless people, a man from Anacostia who had traveled with a shovel to look for impromptu shoveling jobs in Columbia Heights, and some school employees. Volunteers from the neighborhood, who showed up to help serve the meals, outnumbered diners.
“I wonder if the word just hasn’t gotten out,” said Maria Tukeva, the school’s principal. “I think word of mouth would definitely get more people in here.”
A 15-year-old sophomore at Columbia Heights Education Campus came in for lunch after his teacher sent him a text to let him know about the free meals. The student said there was no food in the nearby apartment he shares with his mother and that since the storm, she has not been able to get to work cleaning offices and has not been earning money.
“We have to wait a few days until my mother gets some money and then she can buy groceries,” said the student, who didn’t know what he would eat for dinner.
After an hour or so, the Jordan family packed up boxes of extra chicken nuggets to take back to their hotel, thanked the staff and headed back outside to the slushy sidewalk.
Beers said officials were learning from Monday’s experiment and will discuss ways to improve , including better communication to the public and whether there is a more effective way to deliver meals, such as giving students bags of food to take home ahead of weather that probably will shutter schools.
“We got people onsite to make meals and did something important for the community and the city and for the kids that we were able to serve,” he said. “We need to think about whether or not this is the best way to get food out during this kind of storm or whether there is a better mechanism.”
The feeding centers that will be open are:
●Anacostia High School, 1601 16th Street, SE
●Ballou High School, 3401 4th Street, SE
●Brookland Middle School, 1150 Michigan Avenue, NE
●Cardozo Education Campus, 1200 Clifton Street, NW
●Columbia Heights Education Campus, 3101 16th Street, NW
●Coolidge High School, 6315, 5th Street, NW
●Eastern High School, 1700 East Capital Street, NE
●Jefferson Middle School Academy, 801 7th Street, SW
●McKinley Technology High School, 151 T Street, NE
●H.D. Woodson High School, 540 55th Street, NE
Moriah Balingit and Donna St. George contributed to this report.