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'It's Not Consistent': Oakland Principal Brings Food To Students Cut Off From Meals

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Oakland, Calif., to meet Juan Vaca. He is the principal at Global Family Elementary School, where all of the 453 students receive free or reduced lunch.

JUAN VACA: We have like 98% Latino, Latinx. And we have students that are newcomers or English Language Learners or newcomers coming from other countries with very minimal language and very minimal educational experience, no schooling. So we try to find ways to actually make sure that we're also holding them in a way that they actually have the support that they need to be able to be successful.

MARTIN: His school has always had students who needed help getting food or enough food. But things got worse when the pandemic hit.

VACA: Families had to figure out, how are we going to supplement this food that we used to get at the school? It's kind of - it's difficult to actually fathom, to think that we take something simple, things like lunch and meals and breakfast for granted, because it's expected that it's there. And once it's removed and you give them something else, a different avenue to actually obtain all those things, it's kind of - it's difficult. It's hard. And it's our job, I think, to find the ways to mend that and connect families to these services.

MARTIN: This summer, Vaca worked at a food distribution center at another school in the area. But families from his school couldn't make it, usually because they lacked transportation or were quarantined. So he got creative.

VACA: And what I would do is I would go check it in the morning at that school and make sure that everything was going well. And what I would do is I would bring food back because I knew that their families would be needing this food. And I would house it at my sites. And parents know that they could come and pick it up, or I would drop off on my way back to my school.

MARTIN: Still, that wasn't enough. So Vaca and the staff at Global Family got even more hands-on. Teachers would buy groceries for struggling families and do wellness checks. Eventually, Vaca arranged a food drive at his school twice a month. He says more than 100 families show up each time.

VACA: They're very thankful. They always thank us. And they always want to know, when's the next one? And because families leave with a lot of bags. Like, it's not just here's two apples, here's two - no. It's - there's a lot of food. And I think they're very grateful. I think it's - sometimes, words don't express what they're feeling. I just - the smiles on the face, they're thank you's, says a million words. And I just feel like it speak volumes, right?

MARTIN: Vaca says the drives are a chance to check in with students and their families. That's where he learns how they're adapting to distance learning amid the pandemic.

VACA: It's tough because you have these students who are having to take these roles - right? - these roles of making sure that they cam - you know, mom and dad have to be quarantined. And now you have kind of to fend for yourself. So it's one of those situations where they're very grateful. They're very grateful for what we provide them. But it's not consistent, right? It's not - we're not there every single day. We don't - we're not sure - we're not there with them 24 hours a day. And we can provide one need or we can try to help them overcome one obstacle, but there's still so many more.

MARTIN: Despite the challenges, Vaca remains optimistic. The food drives continue, as do the check-ins. He says he learned a lot in the early days of the pandemic and has adapted to this new normal.

VACA: We need to just continue working at making the drive, striving to do what we're doing in regards to closing this food insecurity gap and making sure that their - at least some of their basic needs are met to the capacity that we can provide, so that that's one less thing they have to worry about.

MARTIN: That's Juan Vaca, principle at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.