May 5, 2020 update: USDA announced that the Meals to You initiative will now serve nearly 5 million meals per week to rural children impacted by COVID-19-related school closures—five times its original goal.
With schools shuttered across the country due to the novel coronavirus, policymakers, district leaders, and food service professionals across the nation have displayed awe-inspiring action and innovation to ensure children weather the storm safely at home and have enough food to eat.
In recent weeks, many districts have put in place grab-and-go breakfast and lunch feeding programs in shuttered cafeterias, parking lots, and other central locations where families can pick up packaged meals to get them through the day. This is possible due to the federal government’s loosened restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis, allowing districts to enact federally funded summer meal programs. Before the crisis hit, around 30 million American children received no- or low-cost meals at school through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Now, the demand is likely even higher.
However, for families in rural areas, accessing packaged meals at central feeding sites may be impossible. And that’s important because 84 percent of the counties with the highest percentage of children at risk for food insecurity are rural. Yesterday, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-Virginia), sent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue a letter urging a further relaxation of restrictions on requirements for students in rural areas.
And last week, the USDA announced a new program called Meals to You aimed at feeding rural children. In a return to the “Harvest Box” idea that the administration has proposed multiple times for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) users, the agency plans to mail 1 million boxes of shelf-stable, mostly processed food to children impacted by the crisis who live in rural settings every week. The agency said it will “prioritize students who do not currently have access to a Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) site and have an active outbreak of COVID-19.”
Meanwhile, however, some schools with summer feeding programs have already hit the ground running in the effort to reach rural kids.
Lunch via the Mail
Managed by Baylor University’s Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, USDA’s public-private food box model will ship a box of 10 meals each week—breakfast and lunch—directly to participant’s doors through UPS and the U.S. Postal Service during the COVID-19 crisis. The effort is based on a pilot program Baylor trialed and evaluated in Texas last summer in collaboration with the federal food agency.
Each box’s components must meet the USDA’s summer meal program nutrition guidelines. School districts apply to participate and, once approved, families in a vetted district enroll through a form on Baylor’s website. According to Jeremy Everett, the executive director of the Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, the first shipments should start hitting doorsteps this week.
Everett says the effort aims to help Texas and other states circumvent traditionally low participation rates at summer meal sites. Data collected in July 2018 found that, on average, just 14 percent of the kids who qualified to receive free meals across the nation turned out to meal sites to eat them.
“When the COVID-19 crisis hit, we helped to set up curbside meals at our districts in Texas,” Everett says. “This format works if kids have access to transportation and live near a school or nonprofit where the food is being distributed. However, in rural America, that’s not always a possibility.”
Though rural counties hold only 15 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 72 percent of the nation’s area. In most of these regions, public transportation is limited or non-existent.
In addition to Baylor University, USDA has also partnered with logistics company McLane Global and PepsiCo to fill and distribute boxes for the program. PepsiCo has committed $1 million in funding to the project. (Update: Panera has signed on to provide discounted meals in Ohio and is also “working with the USDA to scale this model with other states across the nation”).
Everett says the program is seeking additional partners, but these entities must be able to scale to feed 1 million shelf-stable meals each week. According to USDA’s press release, the agency will reimburse private sector partners at the same rate made for vendors who supply to summer feeding sites.
Matt Smith, director of PepsiCo’s Food for Good program, says the boxes will include whole grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. All components must be individually packaged and shelf-stable in order to enable shipping. Shelf-stable chicken salad, tuna salad cups, cheese, turkey sticks, and crackers and chips will be included. Applesauce, raisins, dried fruits, salsa cups, and juice can be also expected.
However, as with USDA’s other similar attempts to launch box efforts in the past, criticism is anticipated due to the lack of fresh produce in the shipments. According to Everett, this is a challenge the program would love to overcome. But the fact that it will all be sent from a few centralized locations and won’t be refrigerated limits the options.
“We’re trying to figure out some fresh food options but that’s pretty difficult when you’re shipping food directly to people’s doors,” he says. “If someone can figure out how to mail boxes of fresh food and keep them in a way that they’re not going to be dangerous to eat upon arrival, that would be a huge win,” Everett adds.
Wheels and Willpower
In addition to the USDA program, many school districts have begun feeding rural students on their own.
Angela Voyles, nutrition service director for Bullitt County Public Schools south of Louisville, Kentucky, says that in a matter of hours after school was canceled, her district mobilized to get 3,600 meals each day to hungry kids in the region. Bullitt’s 23 schools serve 13,000 children in a region covering 300 square miles.
“Our bus drivers were going to go around to pick up and drop off homework,” Voyles says about the original structure of the program. “I said, ‘Hey, can I put some food on your buses, too?’ We all met on a Friday and turned around and started delivering meals the following Monday.”
Last week, food service workers in the district loaded up pre-packaged breakfasts and lunches that were dropped at nearly 70 stops in neighborhoods across the county. This week, the district plans to deliver meals twice, with a week’s worth of food in each delivery in case the state mandates a stay-at-home order. During the COVID-19 crisis, USDA has permitted states to allow a distribution approach where multiple meals may be delivered for up to a week at a time.
Though Bullitt County’s strategy targets the 52 percent of kids in the district who are eligible for free and reduced meals through NSLP, Voyles says the buses will give food to any families that ask for it.
In Nordonia Hills City School District, which serves 3,600 children in five communities half an hour southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, school administrators are also distributing food to any youth in the community regardless of eligibility for NSLP. Like much of America, many caregivers in the district have been impacted financially by coronavirus closures. In Ohio, a state where the governor enacted a stay-at-home order, there was a 2,500 percent increase in unemployment filings last week.
“We’re probably only going to be able to be reimbursed for what our free and reduced population is,” says Matt Gaugler, business director for the district, about the Nordonia Hills program. However, according to Gaugler, that won’t stop him from offering food to all enrolled students.
“The community puts their tax money into our schools through the year,” Gaugler says about the district’s diversion of funds to ensure all kids are fed during the COVID-19 crisis. “The resources we’re able to get right now, we need to give them back to our community,” he notes, referring to the food the school can procure from its vendors while store shelves across the region have been relatively ransacked.
“As long as we can afford it, we will bring food to kids.”
Families can fill out a Google form to request breakfasts and lunches that are delivered to their doorsteps or driveways the following day. (Although many rural areas currently lack access to broadband internet, it’s also accessible via mobile phone.) Gaugler says the district’s transportation staff delivered hundreds of meals last week.
“We chose buses because we felt like using them would get food into the most people’s hands,” Gaugler says. “If you look at the data, the odds of those kids in the middle of a workday getting a ride to go get food are low. It didn’t sit well. We quickly agreed that as long as we can afford it, we will bring food to kids.”
A bit farther south, near Marion, Ohio, 50 miles from Columbus and surrounded by the region’s plentiful farm fields, the school system is also using buses to drop food off at more than 80 central stops in the district. All students there qualify for NSLP due to the community eligibility provision in the program, which allows the nation’s highest-poverty districts to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost.
One parent, Juanita Rosvanis, has taken advantage of the program for her preschool age son, Gabriel, since schools closed last week.
“I think it’ll help a lot of families with the shortage of food in stores,” Rosvanis says. “When you go to the stores right now, it’s pretty empty.”
Rosvanis says that her son really loves the vegetables and juices offered in Marion City’s food drops. Throughout the day, he often grabs one of the pre-packaged items, such as muffins, sandwiches, or cheese sticks to snack on while he plays.
“We don’t have to let them know in advance that we want a meal,” Rosvanis says. “They’ve been calling, texting, using Facebook to let people know that if you’re 18 or under you can come out and get a meal. They don’t want names or ages or anything. They’re doing a really good job just getting food out.”
Lessons Learned for the Future?
Ensuring that these children are fed, during the crisis and in the future, is at the top of many minds. But not everyone agrees on how it should be done.
Lacy Stephens, senior program manager at the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), a nonprofit that works to connect farmers to school nutrition programs directly, says that though her entity would like to see fresh food from American producers getting into the hands of children at this time, ensuring that kids have enough to eat during the crisis is the most important priority.
“It’s really incredible, the number of people that have stepped up to help,” she says. “The school service professionals, the state agencies, and federal agencies that are doing it. We certainly applaud their effort.”
But she says her organization would also like to see the USDA and other agencies embrace local food efforts underway across America—not only during COVID-19 closures but also in the months or years of recovery after.
NFSN is concerned about finding markets for the farmers it works with—to ensure their survival. “We’re also exploring, if this does extend, what are the opportunities to connect more local producers into these relief systems,” says Stephens.
Marion Nestle, the author of numerous books on nutrition and the food industry including Food Politics and The Unsavory Truth, who recently retired from her role as a nutrition professor at New York University and is a visiting professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, says that while feeding hungry people is always the priority, she wonders whether revisiting the USDA’s harvest box concept is the best way to do that.
“A lot of effort has gone into making sure that kids were fed healthy food [at school] and one hopes the same standards will [continue to] apply here,” she told Civil Eats. (Nestle also sits on the Civil Eats advisory board.)
She points to the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which has evolved over the years from one that provided many unhealthy, processed foods to Native American reservations to a system that makes fresh and healthy food available in places like Spirit Lake, North Dakota.
“The program had a long and dreadful history—and was responsible for diet-related health illnesses in the community for years, but it has improved dramatically,” says Nestle. “I visited one outside of Albuquerque recently and it was very impressive. Every item they offered was healthy. So, there’s a model for how to do it right.”
Nestle also has questions about whether PepsiCo—and the other big food companies that may follow as sponsors in the future—will be offering their own products in the box.
According to PepsiCo’s Matt Smith, “Our meals currently do not have any PepsiCo products in them but we may add certain PepsiCo items as they are donated.” They would also have to meet USDA’s nutrition standards, he added.
Nestle’s larger concern—one that is also shaped by conversations with Indigenous people who grew up eating food provided in the boxes of processed foods on reservations—is that it sets, and deeply reinforces, eating patterns within families.
“People told me stories about when they were growing up, how the kids would go immediately for the sugary foods first,” recalls Nestle. “And that’s my worry is that this is conditioning kids to eat processed foods, stuff that comes in packages. And—yes—it’s an emergency. But can’t we do better?”
When it comes to new patterns of distribution, however, Smith and Voyles, are both optimistic that the increased distribution will mean less food insecurity, during the coronavirus crisis and long afterward.
“Once things get back to normal, we’ve got new ways of operating our summer feeding program that could help us reach a bunch more kids than we have in the past,” Voyles adds.
Top photo by Lance Cheung / USDA.