And sometimes, she instead collects the meals at her nearby neighborhood public high school — a school none of her children attend.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools across the country, the Agriculture Department — the federal agency overseeing the nation’s school lunch program — made temporary changes to the program, including enabling families like Johnson’s to pick up multiple meals at one site.
But some of those changes are set to expire in September, and school districts are bracing for more restrictions on who can pick up free meals at schools and where.
D.C.-area school leaders have joined districts across the country in calling on the federal government to extend flexibility in the lunch program and accusing the Trump administration of politicizing the program as a way to encourage districts to reopen schools.
They fear stricter eligibility could hinder the abilities of people such as Johnson, whose husband has lost wages during the pandemic, to secure free meals for her family.
“These meals really help me and my family,” said Johnson, a D.C. government worker whose oldest children attend IDEA Public Charter School, which also provides groceries to families. “I am so excited and happy for this food. They make fun of me, but I’m serious, I’m so grateful.”
Thirty million American students eat school meals. Of them, 22 million qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Six in 10 students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch have managed to access meals during the pandemic, according to an Urban Institute study.
During the pandemic, the meal program operated much as it does during a typical summer, when districts set up sites in strategic locations and any child can pick up free food during an allotted time.
When schools closed in March, parents could pick up meals on behalf of their children at a single site, even if their children attend different schools. They could get them from a school system or charter network in which their children were not enrolled. And even if they did not qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts — which families are eligible for if their annual earnings are no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level — they could still pick up meals, no questions asked.
The federal government reimburses school districts for the meals — up to $3.68 for each lunch during the school year and $4.09 during the summer.
Beginning Sept. 1, the USDA says it will only reimburse meals for children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Families must also pick up a lunch at the school system or charter network their children are enrolled in. And families will no longer be permitted to collect meals for children who are not yet old enough to attend public school.
Some flexibility will remain, including allowing parents to pick up meals for their children even if they are not with them.
But with reports showing low-income children are not receiving sufficient nutrition during the pandemic, advocates fear the changes will only exacerbate the challenges.
In D.C., where there are 63 charter networks and students travel across the city to attend them, advocates worry the consequences could be particularly dire. Every charter network is considered to be its own school system, and Johnson, for example, would have to collect meals for her older children at IDEA and go to another school to pick up meals for a younger child. Other children who attend a charter school far from their homes may be unable to collect meals if they have no transportation.
Families attending a D.C. Public Schools campus would still be able to pick up meals at any campus within the school system.
D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the city is working to ensure students get the meals they need and has joined 1,300 local, state and national organizations in calling on the federal government to extend the meal flexibilities into the fall.
School districts can enact rules of their own, but they will only be reimbursed for meals that meet federal guidelines.
“The only possible explanation I can offer is that the Trump Administration is attempting to use the well-being of children and access to food as a way to strong arm school systems back into buildings before health experts deem it safe to do so,” Kihn said in a statement. “This is antithetical to our DC Values.”
“USDA is committed to feeding children in need and ensuring they continue to have access to nutritious meals during the pandemic,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “Through waivers that USDA has provided for the full school year, schools can utilize bus routes, operate curbside pickup and send children home with multiple meals at one time.”
In Virginia’s Prince William County, the less flexible meal program will have serious consequences, warned Adam Russo, the director of school food and nutrition services. He said the school system’s meal sites were bustling all summer, serving about 8,000 meals a day, a 50 percent increase from previous years.
During the pandemic, everyone received free meals, even those who typically are only eligible for reduced-price meals. But in the fall, these families will have to pay the reduced price of 70 cents for breakfast and lunch. While it’s not a lot of money per meal, it adds up, and Russo said he worries about the financial strain this could cause families.
He said some families from nearby Manassas City Public Schools also used the district’s meal program, and Russo worries about turning them away come September.
“By the time it flips, we’ll have been feeding everyone for free for six months,” he said. “They’re not going to understand why on Friday they got a free meal, but a few days later they suddenly have to pay for it.”
During the pandemic, some districts have struggled to serve the volume of meals they typically do, according to Beverley Wheeler, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, an advocacy organization. For example, D.C. Public Schools, which serves 52,000 children, served 1,106,483 meals between March 16 and Aug. 19, according to the school system.
During the same period last year, it served 2,840,987 meals, more than twice the amount. Wheeler said she fears that students are going without meals, and if they are getting them, they may not be as nutritious as the balanced school lunches.
Since March, the USDA has provided families that receive free or reduced-price school meals with a few hundred dollars in extra Pandemic EBT funds, a debit card benefit for food-insecure households. Those additional benefits are also set to lapse.
“If those flexibilities are not in place, the burden on our parents is going to be tremendous. I’m having nightmares,” Wheeler said. “We know that it’s a nutritious meal, not just another meal in your belly.”
In D.C., some charter schools are attempting to find solutions for families who cannot easily commute to campus during the pandemic. At IDEA, where two of Johnson’s children are enrolled, the school already uses a large bus emblazoned with its logo to set up makeshift meal sites at locations closer to families’ homes. The school also has been using the bus to distribute fresh produce bags to families.
The school also delivers meals and groceries to families’ homes if they are unable to pick them up.
Friendship Public Charter School — the city’s second-largest charter network, which educates more than 4,000 students — has distributed 46,000 meals since the pandemic began. Since May, it has been delivering meals to the homes of 125 students whose families are unable to pick them up.
Rene Sims is a foster parent with three school-age children. One child attends IDEA and the other two attend Theodore Roosevelt High — a school on the other side of the city in Northwest Washington. Sims picks up meals for all three at IDEA and collects groceries from the charter school’s bus at a site near her home in Southeast Washington by the border with Prince George’s County.
She said she has a car and will go to Roosevelt to pick up meals if she needs to, but she would prefer the convenience she was offered in the spring and summer.
“I would rather do it this way,” Sims said. “But when anyone is offering a service, you have to get creative to get there.”