As a community school manager in Oakland, where I coordinate student support services to increase opportunities for learning, I’m always especially attuned to the trauma that students in my school carry on a daily basis — and to how that burden is even heavier when they come to school hungry. There is an urgent need to ensure these kids get the school meals they rely on.
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced an extension through Dec. 31 of the federal waivers that give schools the regulatory flexibility to continue serving meals to everyone under age 18 and increase food assistance benefits for struggling families, it is not enough.
Californians must tell Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend these waivers for the entire school year. And Californians also must tell the state of California to provide resources to school districts for the additional costs accrued providing meals in these challenging circumstances. A short-term measure creates uncertainty for parents and does not allow school districts to do the advanced planning and budgeting necessary to reach the unprecedented number of kids in need.
More children are hungry now as Covid-19 has grown from a public health emergency to an economic one. A new report from No Kid Hungry shows that nearly half of American families are living with hunger today. To cope, some parents are skipping meals so their kids can eat; others are skipping bills like utilities or rent in order to afford groceries.
Prior to the crisis, nearly 22 million kids across the country — including 3.8 million students here in California — relied on free or reduced-price school meals. That number will only grow as more and more families are being pushed into poverty. Since the pandemic began, Oakland Unified has served more than 4 million meals to children in our city, plus more than half a million adult meals.
When our campuses shut down in March as the pandemic arrived, our school district — like many other school districts and nonprofits across the state — scrambled to find ways to ensure students who rely on free meals at school wouldn’t go hungry.
We launched 12 “grab-and-go” sites where families could pick up a few days’ worth of meals for their children.
We also worked with partners to deliver meals to families who couldn’t pick up food. Many partner organizations including No Kid Hungry, the Alameda County Food Bank and the Eat Learn Play Foundation, stepped forward to help provide additional resources, so we could come up with new and innovative ways to provide meals to students. During the summer, we doubled the number of sites to 24. Now in the fall semester, we have 22 sites handing out grab-and-go food.
These meals are critical in a school district like mine. We’ve read about the kids who will struggle with distance learning because they might not have access to a computer or reliable high-speed Internet at home. But I’m especially worried that many of the students struggling with digital connections are the same students who rely on the free breakfast and lunch they normally get at school.
The fact that we were able to provide meals to all kids 18 years old and younger at these food distribution sites not only helped alleviate a significant burden for families facing hunger — many for the first time — but it also made the grab-and-go process much easier and smoother for the staff and volunteers handing out meals.
Finally, the fact is these meals are only one strategy to help reach the kids who need food the most. Many have families who have lost jobs or wages in recent months. Increasing the CalFresh benefit (known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and extending Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (or Pandemic-EBT) benefits that provide families additional money to buy food and groceries when schools are closed because of the pandemic must be part of our response, too.
Distance learning is difficult in its own right. Distance learning while hungry will be even harder. In these times, we need to make it easier — not more difficult — for our students to get the nutrition they need to learn. That’s the reason we need our leaders to place the same emphasis on providing adequate nutrition to kids as they do on providing adequate distance learning technology. After all, the success of one has a big impact on the other.
Covid-19 has revealed the inequities in our communities.
How schools prepare and deliver meals is a critical — although often overlooked — national strategy to fight hunger at home. But, it’s more important now than ever to make sure schools do it well.
Camila Barbour is a community school manager in Oakland Unified School District.
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