For some students, school-provided meals are the only thing they get to eat on weekdays—or, at least, the only healthy thing. The COVID-19 crisis is bringing to light another crisis: the student food security crisis.
But some school districts, with the help of special waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to distribute food to go, are allowing food service workers to prepare meals for their students.
The Northshore School District, just north of Seattle, is one such district. The district has 23,000 students, more than 3,000 of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals due to their families’ income. Wrapped around the northernmost tip of Lake Washington, the district includes Bothell, Woodinville, and Kenmore, as well as unincorporated parts of both King and Snohomish Counties. It’s also at the absolute epicenter of the COVID-19 infection in the United States, with 19 of the country’s 31 deaths having taken place in nearby Kirkland.
On March 4, 2020, in the face of rising COVID-19 concerns, NSD chose to close all of its schools and move to an online-only teaching model for at least two weeks. With scarcely any warning, the schools spent one day transitioning from classrooms to online learning. They provided any students who needed it with a computer or tablet and a wi-fi connection, as well.
“Students can’t learn properly if they’re not fed,” said Juliana Fisher, the district’s director of food services and nutrition. “There are some students whose food at school is the one or two meals they’re getting that day. This situation is really highlighting how critical school meals are.”
NSD’s food service staff has remained hard at work making meals for as many students as need them, distributing them from the closed schools and from off-campus sites. The district has also expanded free lunch to all students, regardless of income eligibility, with the help of generous community groups.
“Needy students live in all communities,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, told NBC News, adding that there are “many unknowns and complex considerations that vary from one community to the next” when it comes to the student food security crisis.
“With so much going on, this isn’t a time when kids should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” Fisher concluded.