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With Classes Canceled, Metro Kansas City Schools Scramble To Make Sure Kids Get Two Meals A Day

Ray Weikal
Kansas City Public Schools
Food service workers prepare sack lunches for Kansas City Public Schools students on Thursday, March 19. Schools are closed until next month, but the district will still provide a lunch to any student who needs one.

With schools around the metro closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, food service directors in Kansas and Missouri have taken on a daunting logistical challenge: how to feed hungry kids until it’s safe for them to go back to class.

“We are not going to turn away any child, any family, who needs support,” said Jordan Gordon, Director of Food and Nutrition for Kansas City Public Schools, where there is the added challenge of dealing with a patchwork of charter schools. Half of all school children living within KCPS’s boundaries attend charters. 

“Our superintendent has been in constant conversation with our charter schools. If a family makes it to one of our sites, they will receive the products we have available,” Gordon said. 

That’s a healthy breakfast and lunch every day that schools are closed. In Kansas and Missouri, about half of all students overall qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

But in states like Washington and California, where schools have been closed for longer, demand for school lunches has steadily increased, according to Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization for large urban districts.

“As time has gone on – and it’s not taken very long – the demand has really picked up and in some cases exceeds what might have otherwise been the case,” Casserly said. 

That may be because many urban public school districts are also feeding students from charter schools, which don’t all have kitchens.

How meals are being distributed locally varies by district. KCPS will be providing meal pick-up at several school sites, starting Monday. Other districts are delivering food to bus stops. In some more rural school districts, teachers have volunteered to drive meals to students’ houses.

Districts are also trying to have as many individual conversations with families as possible. That way they can be connected to additional resources if they need more food than the district can provide. 

Joanna Sebelien, Chief Resource Officer for Harvesters Community Food Network, said that more people are calling their hotline as they lose their jobs because of COVID-19 shutdowns.

“There’s a sense of urgency about this,” Sebelien said. “I think everyone’s worried about what happens if we’re told to shelter in place. So we’re trying to get at least a couple of weeks of food to people,” she said. 

That’s why school districts are trying to make sure their meal distribution plans don’t unintentionally contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

“Grab-and-go meals are available for students, but students cannot stay at the school to eat them because of social distancing guidance from state and local health agencies,” the St. Louis Public Schools said on the district’s website.

On Thursday, KCPS employees sacked more than 14,000 lunches. Gordon said that the district is trying to repurpose the food it would’ve served in lunchrooms over the next two weeks, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, though the meals being distributed can be eaten cold.

Food service workers gave up their spring breaks to prepare meals, and Gordon said meal distribution will continue as long as the Kansas City Health Department says it is safe to do so.

“That’s the most fluid component,” Gordon said. “Personal safety, family safety, community safety is a concern. If this becomes too risky, then as a district we’ll have to make some decisions about how to keep going. We may have to push out resources, then take a pause to reset.” 

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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