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Schools remain open during coronavirus outbreak to ensure needy kids still eat lunch

As the United States grapples with a public health crisis like no other, it may be our children who are affected the most.

Schools remain open during coronavirus outbreak to ensure needy kids still eat lunch
Image Source: (L) ChetPancakes / Twitter (R) Peter Cade / Getty Images

You know the dystopian future has finally set in when young children in the United States have to continue going to school during an outbreak of a global virus. After all, nothing screams "first world" like school children going hungry without access to their state-sponsored lunch meals, right? As small pockets of school districts contemplate whether to shut down or not, many parents are left wondering how their children will eat, CNN reports. In some areas, "grab and go" meals have been established. In others, soup kitchens and other charities are trying to fill the gap. No matter what alternative various school districts are relying on, one thing has been proven: the United States is vastly unprepared for a public health crisis.




Across the country, millions of students rely on the hot meals they receive at school in order to get at least part of their daily nutrition. As per reports from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 20 million school lunches are distributed for free every single day. This just goes to show how critical public school systems have become in areas other than education. However, that makes the state's job even more complex. If schools cancel classes, there is a complicated web of federal rules and regulations that determine when and where students can receive free food. While several of these regulations have been relaxed due to the coronavirus outbreak, "an evolving situation with many unknowns and complex considerations that vary from one community to the next," Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, stated.



At present, the USDA has allowed school districts to offer free meals through programs designed for summer break. These programs are generally fulfilled by local churches, parks, and other community sites. A memorandum issued by the department confirms that schools opting to do so can expect to receive reimbursements by the federal government for the free meals that they provide. The only snag is that these community sites used for meal distribution (including unused school campuses) must be located in neighborhoods where at least half of the children come from low-income families. This ignores the fundamental reality that needy children live in all communities. "[This is a] first step that gives schools in many low-income communities the option to continue some form of meal service during coronavirus school closures," Pratt-Heavner explained. "But needy students live in all communities."



Another alternative currently being practiced by schools in Washington is the "grab and go" meal. In addition to moving all classes online, the Northshore School District has appointed 22 different school sites where students can pick up free hot meals. Juliana Fisher, the district's director of food and nutrition services, shared that five production sites are at present making grab and go meals for children who need them. Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Education, which caters to over a million students, has affirmed that "if a school is closed for 24 hours, we're prepared to serve grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for any student who wants it," spokesperson Miranda Barbot stated.




School districts are scrambling and doing their best to ensure that their students do not go hungry in the midst of this public health crisis. Nonetheless, it is unclear if this strategy will be sustainable should the pandemic last for longer than the country is prepared for. Though school closures are a last resort effort, Shannon Haber, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said, "We are planning for everything. Meals to students included." When asked what parents and students can expect, however, she simply responded, "I have no further information at this time." As one of the richest countries in the developed world, we must ask at this crucial point in time why so many of our students do not have access to hot and nutritional meals. All it took was a small virus to show us how devastatingly vulnerable we are as a nation.



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