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Spokane Public Schools can’t keep up with demand for food, even after upping production

UPDATED: Thu., March 19, 2020

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Hunger doesn’t stop during the holidays – or for the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to the crisis and the closure of all its buildings, Spokane Public Schools began food distribution efforts Thursday morning by preparing 2,100 breakfast and lunch bags at 21 sites throughout the city.

That wasn’t enough, so district nutrition director Doug Wordell and staff prepared another thousand bags.

Still, demand outstripped supply.

“We ran out at just over half of our sites, and most of those sites added meals,” Wordell said Thursday afternoon. “Many of our sites doubled their meal production and still ran out.

“We will gear up for tomorrow,” added Wordell, who oversees a system that feeds 31,000 students, 57% of whom receive free and reduced-price meals.

On a normal day, that means 16,000 lunches and 8,500 breakfasts, but these aren’t normal times.

Wordell wasn’t sure what to expect as he joined staffers at Garfield Elementary in north Spokane. As at every other site, 100 bags were ready to go at 11 a.m.

Five minutes later and almost on cue, three dozen children from the Ascend to the Heights child development center appeared in front of the building.

According to owner Flower Eirls, 90% of the children are at-risk. They live with single parents, in foster homes or in no home at all.

“This food is going to help them get through this time,” Eirls said.

More families, some on foot, most in vehicles, trickled through for the next 2 hours.

Among them were Sam Browne and his two sons, 6-year-old Adonis and 4-year-old Samore.

“A lot of parents don’t have the means, and some of us have to stay home,” said Browne, who is unemployed. “For today, this helps. Tomorrow is another day.”

The meals effort is a response to the closure by Gov. Jay Inslee of all public and private schools, from Tuesday until at least April 24.

Each district is managing its own food distribution, but the task is tougher in Spokane.

Wordell said the district is up for the challenge.

“Hunger doesn’t take a break during the summer, and it doesn’t during emergencies,” Wordell said. “This is an opportunity for the district to step up.

“We are ready to serve any child,” added Wordell, who expects to do just that at 37 sites by next week.

Meals will be offered Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Under federal guidelines, children must be present to receive food.

The food is fresh and nutritious. Breakfasts include yogurt, milk and fruit; lunches feature sandwiches, milk, fruit and vegetables.

Hot meals can’t be replicated, although Wordell hopes to provide frozen burger patties that can be microwaved.

“We will even try cold pizza,” Wordell said. “Everyone likes to eat pizza.”

The district is hoping others will step up to help with weekend meals.

“We’re looking for as many points of light as we can get,” Wordell said.

A few feet away, Garfield Principal Jollene Vining took time to appreciate the moment.

“This is huge for us,” said Vining, who noted three-quarters of Garfield students receive free and reduced-price meals. “We have to take care of these kids, not just academically but nutritionally and emotionally.”

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