The sun did little to dispel the single-digit chill on February 12th when Sarah Kinney hopped on foot by foot in front of Arapahoe High School.
Kinney, the Littleton Public Schools nutritionist, stood by a tall shelf of groceries, waiting for the parents to drop by. Families can take home breakfast, lunch, and student produce for a week for free.
Many students spend the COVID year taking home lessons as part of the district’s online learning program. Others are in quarantine after being exposed to positive cases in classrooms.
But no questions are asked and no forms are filled out for parents who want to take food home. All parents need to do is pull up to a distribution point, load up food, and drive off.
“Seeing the relief on their faces is so rewarding,” Kinney said. “It’s one less thing to worry when they’re down. Some have told us that it feels like the only thing that is currently consistent. “
On February 12, the packed lunches included appetizers such as chicken teriyaki with whole grain rice, deli sandwiches, pasta with homemade sauce and meatballs, nachos and yogurt parfaits. The breakfast bags contained breakfast pizzas, banana bread, and cereal, while the product bags contained fresh peaches, pears, corn, beans, and more.
For Hoa Lai, who was collecting meals for his two daughters in grades 7 and 8, the effect was simple.
“They like a good meal while studying, and that’s what we get here,” Lai said. “My family and I really appreciate it.”
The food distribution program has become a ray of hope for the district during the COVID era, said Jessica Gould, the district’s director of food services. She hopes this will be a starting point for a new school food paradigm that she says could improve health and justice for children everywhere.
“You don’t know anyone’s real economic situation,” said Gould. “Providing this food to everyone without asking questions reduces the stigma of getting help. We know that children who eat good, nutritious meals do better in school and have better health outcomes. We really want to keep doing this. “
In a normal year, about 18% of the district’s 15,000 or so students are enrolled for the federal free and discounted lunch, Gould said. That’s a sizeable majority of the roughly 27% of students who receive cafeteria food instead of bringing lunch from home or going off-campus in the upper grades.
In the COVID era, the number of visitors visiting food distribution points during shutdowns has exceeded that number and is close to 30%. This suggests that there are families who could benefit from the free and reduced lunch program, but are not enrolled.
“When they are on campus, these students may just not eat, but they are more likely to have lunch debts.”
Unlike other districts burdened with lunch debt, LPS has been able to wipe the debt annually with donations from other parents and gifts from the Littleton Public Schools Foundation.
This is what makes Littleton unique – many other districts are unable to cover lunch debt, Gould said.
“We are blessed to have some wealth here, but the irony is that this can create another barrier – it can make poverty so much more shameful. There is a feeling of keeping up with the Joneses, which can make people reluctant to connect. “
Gould, a member of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an industry advocacy group, plans to join forces with pushing the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the national school feeding program, to extend the exemptions that have allowed districts to give free gifts for food perform.
“The current exemptions expire on June 30th, but we don’t think families will have recovered from the effects of the COVID crisis by then,” said Gould. “We could really bear to carry on like this for the next school year.”
In addition, she said, it was time to talk about the big picture. Gould will meet with her colleagues in Congressional meetings later this year to reiterate the SNA’s position that school food should be available free of charge to all students in every school across the country, funded by the Department of Agriculture.
“By offering healthy school meals to all students free of charge, the costly, time-consuming process of requesting and reviewing meals will be eliminated, and paperwork and reporting requirements will be streamlined,” say an SNA position paper. “Parents don’t have to worry about complicated meals, and school nutritionists can focus on feeding the students.”
Currently, the LPS Nutrition Program is a corporate fund under the district budget, Gould said, and typically runs over $ 4 million a year. Sources include direct payments from students – meal costs range from $ 2.25 for an elementary school breakfast to $ 4.25 for an adult lunch – as well as a small reimbursement of free and discounted lunches from the state of Colorado, with most of it from Ministry of Agriculture originates.
The fund is seeing success this year, she said, largely due to falling a la carte sales and payments from students in the school. The deficit could approach $ 800,000.
“In the long run, we could simplify all of this and start a national drive to provide every child with access to healthy food,” said Gould. “We have the power to improve children’s academic performance, tackle child obesity and reduce the stigma of poverty. This could be the beginning of something great. “