The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools serve more than 20 million free lunches every day. If they close, where will children eat?

People grab extra bags of potatoes and carrots at the Capital Area Food Bank’s family food market at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School in the District last week. School closures are causing concerns students could go hungry. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
People grab extra bags of potatoes and carrots at the Capital Area Food Bank’s family food market at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School in the District last week. School closures are causing concerns students could go hungry. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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In Cincinnati, school officials were trying to figure out what kind of nonperishable meals they could distribute to homeless students, who constitute nearly a tenth of the student body. In New Rochelle, N.Y., where residents have been confined to their homes, the National Guard delivered food to needy students. And in Baltimore, a high school senior was contemplating how he would go two weeks without a school lunch.

As the growing coronavirus pandemic shut down school for millions of students, educators are worried not just about missed class time but missed meals, with an estimated one in six children living in homes without enough food, and many families relying on schools to feed their children.

The pandemic has raised questions about how the extended school closures, intended to slow an outbreak that poses particular peril to the elderly, could threaten the well being of children who see school as not just a place to learn but a lifeline. Some warn that the pandemic could spur a child hunger crisis.

“There’s a significant need in our community to continue to support them as much as we can,” said Jessica Shelly, director of student dining services for Cincinnati Public Schools, where 83 percent of children qualify for free and reduced-price meals. She cried as she spoke about the city’s homeless children. “Some of these families don’t have a stove. They don’t have a refrigerator. They don’t have a pan.”

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Schools have become a social safety net for many of the country’s 50 million students, a majority of whom come from households poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized school lunches. Before the wave of closures, schools served free lunches to more than 20 million students who qualified for free meals. Feeding children has become part of the central mission of public schools, even when class is out of session, with many opening cafeterias during the summertime and extended weather closures.

Even as many school districts closed to slow the spread of the outbreak, many school leaders hesitated, knowing some children rely on schools for meals. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) resisted closing the city’s public schools, which educate more than 1 million students, because he worried about where students would eat and who would care for them. On Sunday, facing mounting public pressure, he agreed to shutter them until April 20.

“I know the full cost of shutting our schools. It’s very painful. It’s going to be very difficult for a lot of families,” de Blasio said.

The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for schools. School systems can no longer open cafeterias to serve meals, because it would bring students and staff in close contact and increase the risk of spreading infection. Everyone is being encouraged to stay home.

Instead, many school systems have set up “grab and go” feeding sites, where families can pull up and get meals for every child in the car and bring meals home to eat, minimizing contact between them and cafeteria workers. In some systems, school buses are being deputized to deliver meals to stops in neighborhoods with high concentrations of students eligible for free- and reduced-price meal.

‘We’re all scrambling’: A coast-to-coast improvisation as schools prepare to close

Shelly said she worries about cafeteria workers being exposed and falling ill. And to be doubly certain the virus is not spread by food preparation, everything she plans to serve will be packaged before it reaches cafeterias.

If the closures stretch on, Shelly said cafeteria workers will start delivering meals directly to neighborhoods in a school bus the district transformed into a food truck.

The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating the challenges poor families face in putting food on the table. Joni Holifield, who runs an organization that provides enrichment and leadership training for youth in Baltimore, often feeds the students who show up for her programs, knowing it may be the only full meal they get outside school. Without school, Holifield said, she worries the problem will be exacerbated.

“They don’t know how they’re going to make it for the next few weeks food-wise,” Holifield said.

An 18-year-old high school senior at Forest Park High in Baltimore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said he is often left to fend for himself when it comes to meals because his mother works only a couple of days a week and rarely buys groceries. He leans heavily on the school and after-school activities for food. He said he has even stolen food from the lockers of his classmates — something he said he is not proud of.

But now that basketball season is over, school is out and the nearest feeding spot is a bus ride away — which he can’t afford.

When he heard about the schools shutting down, “I was excited because I get to stay home,” he said.

“But then I was like ‘When am I going to eat?’ ”

Friday, restaurant worker Domingo Salvario balanced his son, Dominik, on his hip while standing in line at D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School, waiting with three dozen others to collect boxes of food donated by the Capital Area Food Bank. Salvario showed up because the restaurant where he worked has shut down, and he worries about how he will make ends meet.

“How are we going to survive?” Salvario said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. People are scared.”

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.