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With Schools Closed, How Are Students In Need Getting Meals?


More than 20 million children in the United States depend on schools not just for an education. They also get low-cost or often free meals. And many of these kids are now home because so many schools have closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. NPR's Cory Turner reports that although classes may be canceled, schools are still making sure students have food to eat.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Susan Enfield is superintendent of Highline Public Schools near Seattle.

SUSAN ENFIELD: I am tired.

TURNER: Her district is closed this week, and roughly two-thirds of students there qualify for free or low-cost school meals.

ENFIELD: I think that I actually am making plans in my sleep. So I'm not sure how much real sleep I'm getting because I wake up with a to-do list already ready to go.

TURNER: Enfield's plan so far is to do what most districts are doing. She's improvising. Even grizzled school lunch veterans say they've just never had to do this before.

LISA DAVIS: Not in my lifetime.

TURNER: Lisa Davis is senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign.

DAVIS: We know what to do when - a natural disaster. There is a playbook for that. But this is unprecedented. We're making up the playbook as we go along.

TURNER: Right now, most closed districts are adapting the playbook they use to feed kids in the summer. They're packing up breakfast and lunch - think sandwiches, chips, fruit, yogurt, milk, juice - and then they're handing out these grab-and-go meals at schools where poverty is most concentrated. There's just one problem, says Davis.

DAVIS: As heroic a job as schools are doing, not every kid's going to get to a meal distribution site.

TURNER: Because their parents may work low-wage hourly jobs with no time off. This is precisely why Karen Brown, the nutrition services director for Franklin Pierce schools near Tacoma, Wash., told member station KNKX she's trying something more direct.


KAREN BROWN: Make the food, put it on school buses and then have our bus drivers drive routes to take it to our highest-needs apartment complexes and housing areas, so that way the kids can just come to the bus rather than having to find a way to get to the school.

TONY REED: I was really impressed. It's a pretty good-sized lunch.

TURNER: Franklin Pierce bus driver Tony Reed told KNKX he gave out 48 lunches on the first day this week. And he says he loves the fact that he gets to maintain a daily connection with the kids.


REED: Just to let them know that I'm here, and I care, even though I'm not driving them today. They get a smiling face, a great attitude. And hey, I'll be here tomorrow. I'm here every day, so come on, eat.

TURNER: Karen Brown, the district's nutrition services director, says she's also trying to make sure the food is popular.


BROWN: I'm going to email my managers and ask them what their kids' most favorite items are.

TURNER: One big winner, she says - a chicken burger. And that's not all she hopes to get on these buses.


BROWN: We could also have some counsellors or other people to go out on the bus with the food, so they can just check in with the kids.

TURNER: There's one more option for schools. Included in this big, new coronavirus bill from Congress is a simple provision with a long name - the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer Act. It would basically use the debit cards families already have if they're enrolled in SNAP, better known as food stamps. If schools are closed and kids can't get meals, Lisa Davis says this change would take that meal value and put it on the debit card.

DAVIS: So that families can purchase additional food to make up for those meals when they do their grocery shopping.

TURNER: What all these efforts have in common, in the words of bus driver Tony Reed - I just want the kids to know I have their back. I care about them, and that doesn't change now.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.