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States scramble to set up food distribution program during school closures

School districts are getting creative to find ways to get food to students and follow social distancing recommendations.

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Willmar public school employee Nikki Lang distributes a cold-packed breakfast and lunch to students Wednesday while they are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Willmar Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services is holding a food-truck style meal service to provide eligible students 18-years-old or younger with breakfast and lunch by bus or at any Willmar school site through March 20. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
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School districts across the region have sprung into action to continue to feed students even as schools have closed as part of COVID-19 prevention efforts.

Districts with 50% or more of the student population receiving free or reduced-price lunch can offer summer feeding programs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued waivers for schools to allow them to use that authority during the COVID-19 school closures.

Every district is handling food distribution differently, explained Daron Korte, assistant commissioner for the Office of Student Health and Wellbeing in the Minnesota Department of Education. Some offer “grab and go” service, some use school buses and drivers to deliver meals and some use food trucks.

Schools have been quick to implement the programs, which Korte attributes to timing. Many already were preparing for summer.

“Basically they just went into full gear a little earlier than they had planned,” he said.

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By Tuesday, March 17, Montana already had 69 schools ready to operate lunch programs, said Chris Emerson, director of school nutrition programs at the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

“We feel like that’s pretty good for one day’s work,” she said.

Like Minnesota, Montana schools are using a variety of methods to get food to kids. And schools that don’t qualify for summer lunch programs still can operate lunch programs, Emerson said. Those schools are encouraged to work with local partners, like food banks and sponsors, to offer meals to students during the school closure. Sometimes, her office can use Census data to show that the school district should qualify for the program.

“If a school calls us, we look at every possible eligibility source,” she said.

Keeping students and staff safe during the virus outbreak is another concern of the lunch programs. Korte said his office has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health to make sure food and health guidelines are being followed and that social distancing recommendations are possible. In a grab-and-go situation, students can’t be allowed to congregate, and lines must keep people at least six feet apart.

“I think that’s going to be one of the challenges districts have to work through,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has announced that it is working with state education authorities and private partners to offer meal deliveries to students in some rural areas.

“Right now, USDA and local providers are utilizing a range of innovative feeding programs to ensure children are practicing social distancing but are still receiving healthy and nutritious food,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

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The collaboration with Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo and others will provide delivery of nearly a million meals per week.

“We know from first-hand experience that families with children who live in rural communities across the U.S. are often unable to access the existing food sites. Meal delivery is critical for children in rural America to have consistent access to food when school is out. This is one way we, as citizens of this great nation, can respond to our neighbors in need,” said Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty.

The Baylor University program will coordinate with state officials to prioritize getting food to students who are both in an area with an active outbreak of COVID-19 and who don’t have access to a Summer Food Service Program site. PepsiCo is providing $1 million in funding for the program.

Boxes provided to students will contain five days worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet USDA’s summer food requirements.

Initial capacity is limited, and additional vendors are requested and encouraged to ensure food can be provided to more rural children as additional schools close. USDA has created a single contact for those who have suggestions, ideas, or want to help feed kids across the country. Email FeedingKids@usda.gov .

Korte said schools and states also are getting creative. Hunger Impact Partners has created a Summer Eats Minnesota app that will show families the closest free summer food site to their location. School districts with 50% or more free and reduced lunch populations offer meals to any comers 18 and under, no questions asked.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONFOODALL-ACCESS
Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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