CREDIT: jaydunn.org/partnerforchildren.org, 2016
A fourth-grade girl eats a nectarine at the Central Enrichment Summer Adventures program in Fresno, Calif. Schools across the state are looking for ways to deliver meals during the school closures brought on by the panedemic.

There are a lot of things to feel anxious and worried about right now.

Jennifer Peck

Overall, I’m feeling much luckier than most — I’m employed, I’m healthy, I have a comfortable house and even though my teenage daughter and I are home with just one another all day, every day, we are figuring this out day by day. I worry a lot about how my daughter’s education will stay on track in a school system that’s not set up for distance learning at the very moment she’s thinking more about college.

But I don’t have to worry about more basic challenges like putting enough food on the table.

As we compel everyone to stay put for personal and public health reasons during the coronavirus emergency, we must consider other ways to get food to kids living in households where the refrigerator and kitchen shelves often are mostly empty. This is a place where nontraditional partners like our public housing and nonprofit housing organizations play a critical role.

While I’m feeling impatient to hear more about when and how remote teaching and learning will happen, I have been incredibly impressed with how quickly my school district, West Contra Costa Unified, got a system up and running for meal pickups at many school and community sites. This, appropriately, was a first priority in a district in which so many students rely on school meals.

To make sure we get meals to all the kids who need them, we should also be delivering meals through the subsidized housing communities where many of our most vulnerable kids live and likely rely on school meals. Not all parents or caregivers have a way to get kids to school sites for meal pickup, making this closer-to-home option even more essential. Delivering meals where the children live reduces the need for transporting them to school or other sites and avoids the danger of community spread of the coronavirus.

Anticipating the severe effect losing school meals would have on the most vulnerable students, the California Department of Education was quick to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to enable school districts, local government agencies and community-based organizations that already have been approved to operate summer food service, to distribute emergency meals now to children in their communities.

The Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Food Option of the National School Lunch Program are programs that are a proven asset to our communities because they do not require applications or paperwork for caregivers, facilitating quick and easy access to healthy food for children and teens throughout the summer. They already have proved to be a lifeline in these unprecedented times of pandemic.

School nutrition professionals throughout the state have demonstrated true heroism by working logistical miracles in just days, navigating uncharted territory to provide thousands of meals to students through drive-through meal pickup at school sites or, in some communities, via school-bus or food-truck-delivery at designated distribution sites.

Even with the Herculean efforts made here in the Bay Area and elsewhere, many of California’s low-income students remain at risk of going hungry if they are unable to get to designated meal sites. Even during normal times when school is out for winter or summer break, barriers exist for many families to access meal sites. Those barriers could include discontinued school bus service, caregiver concern about neighborhood or street safety, lack of transportation or a work schedule that doesn’t allow caregivers to get their children to a meal site.

In these far-from-normal times, access problems may be compounded or new barriers added, such as reduced public transit service or risk of exposure to the virus for older or immunocompromised family members.

Given these concerns, the option of affordable housing sites distributing meals to students should be heavily used wherever possible across the state.

My organization, the Partnership for Children and Youth, produced a brief last year on the role of housing agencies and the federal meal programs (little did we know then how profoundly important this information would become). Today, we are trying to ramp up outreach as well as technical assistance for communities that want to take advantage of partnerships with affordable housing organizations to feed hungry kids.

All of us are searching for positives in this pandemic. One of them certainly will be the new and creative partnerships we establish in order to support one another, our families and our communities.

•••

Jennifer Peck is the president of The Partnership for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that supports afterschool and summer learning programs, school and summer meals, and social and emotional learning, with an emphasis on California’s most under-served students.

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