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Why Grab-And-Go Meals Around SoCal Could Change This School Year

Alhambra Unified, like many school districts, offered grab-and-go meals during the 2019-20 school year closures. (Courtesy of Alhambra Unified School District)
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On Alhambra Unified's first day of school last week, Vivien Watts saw a teenager biking around a grab-and-go meal site.

He saw they were handing out meals, so he pulled over and asked, "Are these meals free?" she said.

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If he had asked last spring -- or even over the summer -- the answer to that question would have been yes. But because he asked this school year, Watts said the food staff were required to answer his question with a question of their own: "Are you a student here?"

Watts, the executive director of Alhambra Unified's Food and Nutrition Services, said she remembers that moment vividly -- and it didn't feel good.

"I just feel bad about that kid. He was a skinny kid, you know, he could use a meal," she explained. "But because he wasn't a student of that school, we have to turn him away."

How could that be, when for months, schools and districts around Southern California have been distributing millions of grab-and-go meals?

The answer lies in the complicated rules governing school nutrition.

Even when there isn't a pandemic, a lot of students depend on schools for healthy food. Take Alhambra Unified, where Watts works, for example: About 60% of the district's students qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on need.

Normally, the district gets reimbursed for meals served to those students through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. (Other kids can get food too, they just have to pay for it themselves.)

"During normal times, people pretty much know their status and they know if they qualify, they should apply for meals," Watts said.

But of course, this pandemic has not been a normal time.

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As a result, a lot of people might not know if they'll still have a job tomorrow, so they might not be prepared to apply for this assistance -- or even know that it exists, she said.

And even if they do, Watts added, the eligibility is determined by a federal scale, so families in California where the cost of living is high could still struggle to get food on the table even if they don't technically qualify for the assistance.

So when schools closed their campuses to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the spring, Watts and her team changed up their entire food service operation.

Meals -- like the grilled chicken caesar salads and oranges for lunch on Wednesdays and the cinnamon rolls and apple sauce for breakfast on Fridays -- were packaged to be grab-and-go. She and her staff gave them out for free to any kid who asked for one -- even if they didn't qualify for a free meal based on their family's income.

And this wasn't just an Alhambra thing. Many districts and charter schools around Southern California advertised these free grab-and-go meals for kids. As of Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District alone had handed out nearly 55 million meals to students and adults.

School districts were able to offer meals to more kids because, after school campuses closed in March, the USDA waived some of the normal rules governing these school meal programs.

Waiving the normal rules regarding area eligibility and summer meal programs meant they could "in essence, operate a universal meal program for all students," said Kristin Hilleman, California School Nutrition Association chair of public policy and legislation.

With that flexibility, Stephanie Conde with Arts in Action Community Charter Schools in East L.A. said she went from serving about 750 meals a day to students at school to serving more than 5,000 meals a day to kids in the community, even if they weren't students at her schools. Her team was also able to give food to adults with disabilities.

She had the resources, the staff, and the permission needed to help.

"The community heard that we were giving out food," Conde said. "And we were able to broaden our reach and help out the rest of the community."

And if people in need couldn't get to a distribution spot, staff would deliver the meals to them, contact-free.

"I love this community. I am from this community. And I can see myself and a lot of our students in a lot of our families," Conde said. "At least securing meals for them, I think, we have been able to take a burden off a lot of moms, parents, and grandparents."

Capistrano Unified staff prepare and distribute grab-and-go meals during the COVID-19 campus closures. (Courtesy of Capistrano Unified School District)

Hilleman, who also heads up Food and Nutrition Services for Orange County's largest district, Capistrano Unified, gets emotional when she thinks about the impact these meals have made -- even in her district, which is more affluent.

"Having the ability to go pick up meals, see their school, see some of the cashiers, the cafeteria workers, even maybe see a teacher walking by on a school campus, brings a sense of normality for them," she said.

But those waivers that made all this possible for all kids had end dates, and despite the fact the pandemic continues to affect every aspect of life, not all of them have been extended through this school year.

Rep. Bobby Scott from Virginia has introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would make all students eligible for free meals this school year.

But Hilleman admits that while "universal free meals would be amazing, it is most likely not going to be something that occurs." Instead, she and other school nutrition advocates have focused on the waivers.

While some have been extended through the end of this school year, the area eligibility waiver and the waivers that allowed schools to feed kids under the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option have not. (On Aug. 20, the USDA did extend the area eligibility waiver through Sept. 30 or the end of a district's summer semester, whichever comes first).

Members of Congress had written letters to each other, and to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, about this.

In one signed by Scott and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, they argue extending the waivers would allow schools to spend less time on paperwork, and instead focus resources on getting food to kids.

According to Arts in Action Community Charter Schools, staff have distributed more than 100,000 meals to the community. (Courtesy of Arts in Action Community Charter Schools)

"If the Department truly intends to live up to its motto to 'Do right and feed everyone,' the Department must take every action possible to respond to this crisis," they wrote.

Here in California, officials with the state Department of Education declined an interview, but wrote in an email that they've asked the federal government for permission to continue the summer rules through the school year, too.

The USDA said in a statement that it will "look at all options within our statutory and budget authority."

In the meantime, "it's like the pause button has been hit," Hilleman said.

And now, Watts in Alhambra, Conde in East L.A., Hilleman in South Orange County -- and their equivalents in schools and districts around the state and country -- have the difficult task of figuring out how to feed hungry students while also abiding by the rules.

For many districts and charters, that means they might have to ask for student names or IDs, check their eligibility, and maybe even charge students the reduced meal price (40 cents) or the full cost (around $3).

It also involves explaining to community members how -- and why -- things are changing.

Conde said she and her team have been trying to get the word out early.

"We've been giving them information about food banks and what they can do, but they're a little bit upset we are no longer going to continue," she said. "They don't understand why."

The state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, says it has distributed nearly 55 million free meals to students and adults in need since March. The district fundraised around this effort and other assistance for families, raising $22 million.

Still, LAUSD worried about how it would fund the meal distribution, which it offered to anyone "no questions asked." Superintendent Austin Beutner has pressured the city, county, and state to help the district cover the cost of feeding hungry families.

In this year's "Back to School" guide, LAUSD explained it will continue to distribute two free meals "to students and community members who need them while students are learning in virtual classrooms."

There is a notable change, though: barcodes.

Whoever goes to one of the more than 60 sites between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. to pick up these meals on behalf of students is supposed to bring those students' assigned barcodes -- though adults "do not need a barcode to pick up meals."

I asked LAUSD to explain what this means and how these barcodes will be used, but the district did not respond by publication time.

Alhambra Unified staff distribute meals at a grab-and-go meal site. (Courtesy of Alhambra Unified School District)

I asked Alhambra Unified's Vivien Watts what she'd say to people who don't think schools should be in the business of food relief.

"What people don't understand is that ... taxpayers are already paying for that," she said. "But isn't it nice if we can ... instead of spending money on all this paperwork or processing, verification, auditing part, go back to putting the money to the food so kids can get better food and we can feed more kids?"

But without the waivers that have been in place the past few months, she and her staff have changed up their practices yet again, to adhere to the normal rules. They're taking COVID-19 precautions, but checking names and collecting payment does still increase the contact and length of the exchange.

The first week of school, they served an average of just 832 meals a day, almost entirely to students who had qualified for free and reduced-price meals.

Watts worries about the low participation compared with pre-pandemic times, but she's holding out hope that, somehow, these waivers will get figured out, and her district can get permission once more to give food to any hungry kids who bike over for some.

"We have a very strong sense of responsibility that we need to do things," she said. "We need to do it right."