So ahead of this week’s spring break, during which meal service is canceled, school officials took extra preparations. On Friday, they were ready to deliver roughly double their typical daily total, Bellavia said.
It wasn’t enough. School officials gave out meals to 3,749 students, Bellavia said, before they were forced to halt operations early. Among those left empty-handed: a single mom whose child attends an Arlington school. The virus, together with an underlying medical condition, has left the woman, who’s in her 60s, without work and forced to stay inside. After weeks of searching, she had finally secured a kind stranger willing to wait in line for meals at the closest Arlington campus. On Friday, the volunteer stood in line for 40 minutes, only to be told the supply of meals had run out.
“She called me: ‘They shut it down, they’re out of food,’ ” said the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of privacy concerns. “It was so upsetting.”
Now, the woman — along with many other Arlington families — faces a week without school-provided sustenance. (“We don’t have any numbers as to how many were turned away,” Bellavia said.) Neighbors and nonprofit groups are stepping in to help, but even proponents acknowledge the makeshift solutions are unsustainable and unlikely to reach everyone affected.
The challenge of feeding families through school closures was already immense. Districts across the country have raced to find solutions, establishing pickup sites or repurposing bus routes to deliver meals to students’ homes.
But in many places, spring break — arriving as job losses climb well into the millions — is presenting fresh problems. How can schools keep feeding families during a time employees are supposed to be off work? Worse, experts said, the week-long break is a preview of difficulties ahead. What will happen, they ask, when summer comes?
Crystal FitzSimons has spent 20 years working for the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit that combats poverty-related hunger and malnutrition in the United States, most recently as director of its school programs. Never before, she said, has she felt this worried.
“The impact to the economy, the inability for people to come together [physically], the fact that schools across the country are closed — it’s unprecedented,” she said. “Families are going to fall through the cracks.”
Roughly 22 million students nationwide rely on federally subsidized school meals in a typical year, FitzSimons said. Schools already struggled to keep feeding these students during summer break: Summer nutrition programs only reached 1 in 7 children who needed them last year, FitzSimons said.
All the challenges that make it difficult to feed students in a normal summer — loss of a “captive cafeteria audience,” lack of transportation — will be exacerbated by the pandemic, she said. Plus, it’s all happening at a moment when families are more likely than ever to need help.
In the immediate time frame, FitzSimons said, her organization is recommending that schools try to maintain meal distribution during spring break.
That’s what’s happening at Fairfax County Public Schools, whose 188,000 students make it one of the largest school systems in the nation. The Northern Virginia district will continue its meal delivery — accomplished via 13 bus routes, 32 curbside pickup sites and four pop-up distribution centers — without interruption through spring break this week.
“It was obvious we needed to do that,” said Maria Perrone, acting director of the district’s Food and Nutrition Services. “We immediately made the decision we would stay open.”
The school division is paying its employees overtime during the break, Perrone said, which represents a substantial financial commitment. More than 200 Nutrition Services employees are joining forces with at least a dozen bus drivers to ensure meals are delivered every day.
At the start of the shutdown, the school system was serving roughly 14,000 meals a day. In recent days, that number has jumped to 20,000, Perrone said, spurring Fairfax to open a second “central meal production facility” last week.
In nearby Alexandria City Public Schools, a much smaller system serving 16,000 students, officials are taking a hybrid approach: continuing meal distribution for some of spring break, but also turning for help to government officials and nonprofits.
Twice during spring break, roughly 30 employees with the Alexandria city government will travel to the campus of T.C. Williams High School to hand out food to families, filling in for school staffers. The solution came out of talks held between the school system and government officials last week.
“We put our heads together: How can we sustain some level of getting food to families?” said Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Alexandria’s vice mayor.
Alive!, an Alexandria nonprofit, also held two drive-through food pantries for Alexandria families over the past two weeks, said executive director Jennifer Ayers, partly to tide them through spring break.
In Arlington, help is coming from other parents. Melissa Schwaber, 40, read about the school system running out of food in a Facebook post. That inspired her own post, in which she suggested that Arlington families host a food drive to fill the food pantry of her church, Our Lady Queen of Peace, which is expecting increased demand during spring break.
Schwaber left an empty box out on her porch, asking other families to do the same. At least 14 households followed her advice, and three more families volunteered to drive around collecting food and delivering it to the church.
The food has poured in since then: cans of fruit and boxes of cereal, bags of beans and rice that spill across her porch. One person left a six-pack, with jars of pasta sauce in lieu of microbrews.
“Sometimes I know the people dropping stuff off, sometimes I don’t,” Schwaber said. “But I always wave — from behind my glass door.”
The single mother in Arlington thinks she’ll be able to weather spring break. She managed to stockpile a lot of dry goods, she said. True, meals might get weird: a repetitive cycle of pasta, cereal and chicken noodle soup. And she will have to spend money on groceries that she cannot afford to spend.
But she is certain that she and her child will have enough to eat — at least for the next week.