When a young man got out of a car and approached Rainier View Elementary School, Zelda Norman hailed him before he could even cross the threshold of the school. He approached a cart that was laden with prepared meals and snacks, and flanked by silvery coolers forming a socially distanced box around Norman and Maryanne Decena, visiting from Wing Luke Elementary School.
When he turned back to the waiting vehicle, he was carrying several bags of food.
Norman is the kitchen manager at Rainier View Elementary School and she knows her students. She encourages them to get adventurous with food, wheedling them into a single “no thank you” bite to convince them to try new things.
When the coronavirus turned schools into ghost towns this spring, it threatened the food security of vulnerable families who relied on free and reduced-price meals for their children’s nutrition. Seeing that need, Seattle Public Schools stepped in, opening 25 sites for meal pickup, sending meals through neighborhoods on school buses and even working with Amazon to deliver meals directly to students’ homes.
In pre-COVID times, families had to qualify to receive free and reduced-price meals, but under emergency rules from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), districts were able to offer free food to any student, regardless of family income.
USDA announced it would extend that flexibility until Dec. 31 or when money for the program runs out. That’s a big deal because the need continues to grow, said Aaron Smith, director of the Nutrition Services Department. Instead of dealing with paperwork, schools can concentrate on getting nutritious, culturally relevant food to children.
“Before they extended the waiver, we were scrambling,” Smith said.
Ensuring that students have access to sufficient, healthy foods is critical to their health and their learning; studies show school meal programs have a measurable impact on standardized test scores and overall academic achievement.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, said Lisa Rivera-Smith, a Seattle School Board director in District 2.
“If you’ve ever gone to a meeting or worked hungry, you know you need a meal,” Rivera-Smith said.
But the pandemic removed one of the main strengths of the school meal program — namely, that kids are supposed to show up to the school campus every weekday. With remote learning, the district had to get creative.
The 2020 summer meal program originally comprised 25 sites where students and families could drop by during certain hours and be assured of getting a hot meal and food for the road. That number will expand to 40, Smith said, and meals will continue to be delivered through the bus routes and the partnership with Amazon.
Doorstep delivery can be crucial to vulnerable families and those who can’t make it to either a pickup location or the bus drop-offs.
“If you miss the bus, you miss the bus,” Smith said.
And kids do not want to miss this bus.
Smith reengineered the school meal program at SPS, bringing on chefs for the kitchen and supervisors with experience in either cooking or other areas of food service to watch out for different areas of the city. The effect has been meals targeted toward the students at each of the schools, who come from diverse culinary backgrounds.
On Sept. 11, Rainier View Elementary School was serving turkey sausage and grits and offering bags of shelf-stable foods to go. When school was still in session, Smith implemented a soup bar where students could assemble bowls of customized goodness on their own. Sushi? They’ve got it. Congee? It’s on the menu.
“We’re trying to make sure we are putting out offerings that are culturally relevant,” Smith said.
The crew debuted brisket and grits recently, much to the delight of one young person at Wing Luke Elementary School who ran about shouting, “They’ve got steak!”
That meal was very popular with students, Norman said.
As the coronavirus crisis wears on and enhanced government support runs out, meal sites are starting to see a growing number of people seeking food for their families.
Initially there was a decline in meals served across the country, Rivera-Smith said, referencing information she gathered in a weekly Zoom meeting with school officials in other states.
However, foot traffic at Rainier View Elementary School steadily grew in these months, so they stepped up the amount of food available.
Most weekdays this summer, the school served up to 300 people. On Sept. 11, that jumped to 400. The day prior, the district served 21,000 meals, up from a rough average of 15,000 per day.
Part of that increase may be better advertising: The district is working with the city of Seattle, Boys and Girls Club, community centers and through other avenues to get the word out about the free meals. But Smith thinks there are also increasingly more families who need the security that the meal sites provide.
“I think it’s a combination of both, and there’s definitely still a need,” Smith said.
An end to the wider flexibility is still in sight. Without another intervention, the extra money for the program will dry up at the end of the year and force schools back into the position of gatekeeper, asking families to prove they need food for their kids based on income. Smith hopes that the federal government will continue the expanded program or that the district will find a way to pay for it itself.
It’s simple for Marcus Mosby, the south Seattle area supervisor for Nutrition Services.
“These are our babies. We have to take care of them any way we can,” Mosby said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 16-22, 2020 issue.