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News >  Spokane

With schools closed, officials wrestle with how to feed lunch to thousands of children

March 13, 2020 Updated Fri., March 13, 2020 at 7:31 p.m.

School buses begin arriving to pick up meals on Thursday in Bothell, Wash. As schools across the U.S. close their doors to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they’re making arrangements to hand out breakfasts and lunches to millions of students who need them. (Olivia Vanni / AP)
School buses begin arriving to pick up meals on Thursday in Bothell, Wash. As schools across the U.S. close their doors to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, they’re making arrangements to hand out breakfasts and lunches to millions of students who need them. (Olivia Vanni / AP)
By Maggie Quinlan For The Spokesman-Review

Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to close schools in Washington for six weeks has sparked action among administrators to determine how best to help feed children from families who depend on free or reduced-cost meals at schools.

There are 25,500 students in Spokane County’s three largest school districts who are eligible for subsidized breakfasts and lunches, according to data from Washington’s child nutrition program reports.

“Schools are scrambling, so therefore we’re scrambling to try to help support them,” said Leanne Eko, Director of Child Nutrition Services for Washington state.

Most contingency plans were designed to feed students during natural disasters when congregate eating is still an option, Eko said. Those plans won’t work now. Much of the burden will fall on food banks, and ultimately families, to fill the nutritional gap.

Second Harvest, a Spokane-based network of 250 food banks and meal centers in Washington and Idaho, feeds an estimated 55,000 people in a normal week, said Drew Meuer, senior vice president of philanthropy. During school holidays, he said food banks see a surge of families whose children normally get free meals at school. Closures will be different.

“Everybody is seeking help pretty much at the same time,” Meuer said. “A disruption like this is unprecedented in terms of its effect on our supply chain.”

Many low-income families already can’t afford to stock their kitchens to self-quarantine, he said. Some will lose their income when businesses close for social distancing. Others will lose hours staying home sick and caring for children not in school. And some will have to replace up to 10 meals per child per week they’d normally get free at school, Meuer said.

Most Washington school cafeterias plan to distribute sack lunches, which are less nutritious than regular lunches and more expensive in labor and materials, Eko said.

At the same time, food service funds will deplete during closures. The federal government reimburses schools for each free meal served, and kitchens get the rest of their money from meal sales. Those two sources help pay for everything from salaries to keeping the lights on in cafeterias.

With schools closed, the number of meals served will drop dramatically no matter what, Eko said, and there’s no other plan set up for schools to get compensation from the government.

Meanwhile, food temperature regulations mean many bulk items, like 40-pound boxes of chicken strips, can’t be individually packaged and will likely go to waste. Unused food could go to nonprofits, but food banks are also struggling to find ways around congregate eating.

Some pantries will pack boxes to send home with low-income families, Meuer said. Some have opened drive-thrus so vulnerable people can stay in their cars. But these methods require more volunteers, food donations and money for packaging and transportation.

Local food banks already are seeing a dip in the number of volunteers due to social distancing. Second Harvest expects fewer and fewer volunteers and food donations as COVID-19 and fears spread.

Meuer points to the 2008 recession.

“That’s the last time I remember any challenge of this magnitude facing us,” he said.

The ability to breakdown bulk food items is the backbone of Second Harvest’s distribution, he said. With that ability slashed and a diminishing labor force, Meuer expects this could be worse for hunger-relief efforts than the recession.

“It’s something we’re grappling with for pretty much the first time,” Meuer said. “We’re likely in for a pretty bumpy ride ourselves.”

Freelance writer Maggie Quinlan is a student at Washington State University

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