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Administrators Try To Serve School Lunch — Without The School


Now to efforts here in the U.S., where the majority of schools are closed and millions of children are home, often unsupervised. Making matters worse, many of these kids depend on their schools for free or low-cost meals. That is why, in these early days, school leaders are scrambling to figure out how to keep their school lunch programs going without the school.

NPR education correspondent Cory Turner joins me. Hey, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How big of a challenge is this just now?

TURNER: Well, we know that well more than 20 million kids depend on free or low-cost school meals. And that's not just lunch - this is really important to keep in mind - it's also breakfast; it's snacks. And in many cases, it's also dinner. And granted, schools do feeding programs in the summer, but they have time to plan for that. And we have to remember that these long-term closures, they happened pretty fast.

So I spoke with Katie Wilson. She's executive director for the Urban School Food Alliance. She was also a deputy undersecretary at USDA under President Obama. She's basically - I like to think of her as a school lunch lifer professionally. And I asked her, has she ever seen anything like this?

KATIE WILSON: No, I've never been in a situation like this where we really are at crisis point and where it's going to be very difficult for children to get access to food. I mean, we've had some situations - natural disasters, things like that - where we've dealt with things but nothing like this where we don't see any end in sight or how we're actually going to manage it all.

KELLY: Cory, it sounds like such a scramble. So what are they doing? What are schools doing to try to help kids get fed?

TURNER: Yeah. So they're doing a few things. First, as I said, they're starting with the playbook that they usually use in the summer. So that means pick a handful of schools, usually where poverty is most concentrated in a district, and then designate these schools as food pickup sites. They then pack up bags or even boxes with what are called grab-and-go meals. So sometimes they have perishables, like sandwiches or even a burger, but they're also full of stuff that will keep for a while - so chips, granola bars, fruit cups, milk, juice. Parents and kids can then basically drive up or walk up, grab it and head home. There is one downside here - which is unique to a pandemic - which is there is a risk in some larger city districts of crowds forming.

KELLY: I'm also thinking that would work fine if the kid has parents who are around and can get them there. What about kids whose parents are working?

TURNER: Yeah, I think this is a really big challenge for a lot of districts because these are often the kids who need the meals the most. So I've talked with a bunch of district leaders who say, look - we're improvising. We heard from one district in Washington state that's putting these grab-and-go meals basically on its buses and then taking them out to large apartment buildings and to neighborhoods where they know a lot of their students live. One of our member stations, KNKX, spoke with one of these bus drivers. His name is Tony Reed.

TONY REED: I've been telling the kids, we're every day - every day because I really want them to be there every day. Whether they're hungry or not, I want them to continue to have that connection with the school.

TURNER: Yeah. And the district says it also hopes, Mary Louise, to start getting counselors on these buses, too, so they can check in with kids.

KELLY: Just a few seconds left, Cory - but does the federal government have a role to play here?

TURNER: Absolutely. And they've done a few things. You know, USDA announced this week it's going to team up with some public and private partners to work specifically in rural communities. And we should also say this coronavirus bill includes a provision that, for kids who cannot access these meals, it would basically take the value of those meals and put it on food stamp debit cards that their families could use at a grocery store.

KELLY: Thank you, Cory.

TURNER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. 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.