School districts think outside the cafeteria to get students meals amid pandemic

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MCALLEN, Texas (KVEO) — Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, crowded lunch tables during school hours was a common occurrence. Now, lunch doesn’t quite look the same as students are learning in new ways and outside the classroom to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. 

In place of a bustling cafeteria, nutrition programs like Curbside Pick-Up, Meals On Wheels, and Breakfast and Lunch In a Classroom have emerged.

These meal options were implemented nationwide to help alleviate food insecurity that many education leaders worried would only increase with students learning remotely. 

In early September, an organization called Burbio, which aggregates school and community calendars nationwide, shared a study that revealed 62% of students in the United States went back to school virtually, while 37% attended in person either every day or certain days, with 1% of students in districts that hadn’t finalized plans. Since then, more schools have opened up — and an estimated 62.2% of students attended school in-person at least one day a week.

Many education officials have found that given these new learning styles, fewer students are participating in nutrition programs nationwide. That can have a major effect on an already challenging school situation, according to Lionel Vega, the Nutrition Coordinator with Harlingen CISD in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Studies have shown that those who have proper nutrition have a longer attention span, they have better test scores,” Vega said.

Why aren’t more students getting meals?

Vega says the district still serves meals to an average of 6,000 students a day, despite the pandemic and new students learning in-person and remotely. 

But, the amount of meals the district is preparing now is still less than what it would normally produce during a typical school year.

A McAllen ISD food worker hands a meal to someone in a car (KVEO Photo)
A McAllen ISD food worker hands a meal to someone in a car (KVEO Photo)

“Like many districts around the nation, we’ve all felt the decrease,” Vega said. 

And, HCISD is not the only school district in the area seeing a decrease in nutrition participation. McAllen ISD’s Child Nutrition Director Alexandra Molina says its district is also preparing fewer meals and seeing a decrease in student participation with its nutrition programs.

Molina says she believes a lack of transportation, income, and the fact that some students are eating meals prepared by their parents is all playing a factor in the decrease they’re seeing.

“We are averaging 52% of our families participating in breakfast and lunch, as opposed to 85%, but the national average is about at 18 or 19%,” she said. 

According to the U.S Census Bureau more than 50 million people with children under 18 at home say their household has lost income since March 13, which could be contributing to a lack of transportation.

The Bureau also collected data between September 16 to September 28 in a Household Pulse Survey. Over 9 million people said they sometimes “didn’t have enough to eat.”

“With COVID, there’s a lot of obstacles and we continue to explore all different methods to ensure students are getting the help they need,” Vega said.

Thinking outside the cafeteria

One of the solutions HCISD has implemented is a Curbside Pick-Up Program. 

According to the district, the program started when students began working remotely. HCISD Child Nutrition Services provides breakfast and lunch daily via curbside at 25 school sites from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

A Harlingen CISD food worker prepares meals (KVEO Photo)
A Harlingen CISD food worker prepares meals (KVEO Photo)

Another potential solution it has tried to implement is a Good To Go Bus-Hub. The district says this program brings free lunch to children in the community who might not have access to meals while learning remotely. 

“We have 10 sites that we reach with 4 bus routes,” Vega said. 

McAllen ISD has also implemented meals at bus stops. 

“We have stops within two blocks of every McAllen ISD child,” Molina said.

While both districts are working to reduce food insecurity — Mcallen ISD says it’s still difficult to measure the success of its program because there’s no reliable way to determine if a student is actually going without food.

Nonetheless, both districts say students having access to food is their priority. 

“If the child can get this at home, stay at home and eat your meals,” Vega said. “But I will encourage everyone to come and pick up the free meal if they can.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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