The sun did little to chase away the single-digit cold on Feb. 12 as Sarah Kinney hopped from foot to foot outside Arapahoe High School.
Standing beside a tall rack loaded with bags of food, Kinney — who serves as Littleton Public Schools' nutrition supervisor — waited for parents to drop by. For no charge, families could take home a week's worth of breakfasts, lunches and produce for students.
Many students are spending the year of COVID taking classes from home as part of the district's online learning program. Others are under quarantine after exposure to positive cases in classrooms.
But for parents who want to take food home, there are no questions asked, no forms to fill out. All parents need to do is pull up at a distribution site, load up on food and drive off.
“To see the relief on their faces is so rewarding,” Kinney said. “It's one less thing to worry about when they're down. Some have told us it feels like the only thing that's consistent right now.”
On Feb. 12, the lunch bags included entrees like chicken teriyaki with whole grain rice, deli sandwiches, pasta with homemade sauce and meatballs, nachos and yogurt parfaits. The breakfast bags included breakfast pizzas, banana bread and granola, while the produce bags held fresh peaches, pears, corn, beans and more.
For Hoa Lai, picking up meals for his two daughters, in grades 7 and 8, the impact was simple.
“They like a good meal while they're studying, and that's what we get here,” Lai said. “My family and I appreciate it a lot.”
The food distribution program has become something of a bright spot for the district during the COVID era, said Jessica Gould, the district's nutrition services director, one she hopes is a starting point toward a new school food paradigm that she says could improve health and equity for children everywhere.
“You don't know anyone's true economic situation,” Gould said. “Making this food available to everyone, no questions asked, reduces the stigma around getting help. We know kids who eat good, nutritious meals do better in school and have better health outcomes. We really want to keep this going.”
In a normal year, roughly 18% of the district's 15,000 or so students are enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program, Gould said. That's a sizable majority of the roughly 27% of the student body who get cafeteria food instead of bringing lunch from home or going off-campus in the upper grades.
But in the COVID era, the number visiting distribution sites for food during shutdowns has topped that, coming closer to 30%, suggesting to Gould that there are families who could benefit from the free and reduced lunch program but aren't enrolled.
“When they're on campus, those students may simply not eat, but more likely they will incur lunch debt.”
Unlike other districts burdened with lunch debt, LPS has been able to wipe the debt slate clean annually with donated funds from other parents and gifts from the Littleton Public Schools Foundation.
That makes Littleton unique — many other districts are unable to cover lunch debt, Gould said.
“We're blessed here to have some affluence, but the irony is that can create another barrier — it can make poverty feel that much more shameful. There's a sense of keeping up with the Joneses that can make people reluctant to reach out.”
Gould, a member of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an industry advocacy group, plans to join others in pressing the federal Department of Agriculture — which oversees the national school lunch program — to extend waivers that have allowed districts to conduct food giveaways.
“The current waivers expire on June 30, but we don't think families will have recovered from the effects of the COVID crisis by then,” Gould said. “We could really stand to keep going like that through the next school year.”
Beyond that, she said, it's time to talk big picture. Gould will join her colleagues in meetings with Congress later this year to assert the SNA's position that school food should be available to all students at no charge in every school nationwide, funded through the Department of Agriculture.
“Offering healthy school meals to all students at no charge will eliminate the costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process and streamline paperwork and reporting requirements,” an SNA position paper reads in part. “Parents won't have to worry about complicated meal applications, and school nutrition professionals can focus on nourishing students.”
Currently, the LPS nutrition program is an enterprise fund within the district's budget, Gould said, and typically runs about $4 million per year. Its sources include direct payments from students — meal costs run from $2.25 for an elementary school breakfast to $4.25 for an adult lunch — plus a small reimbursement from the State of Colorado for free and reduced lunches, with most of the rest from the Department of Agriculture.
The fund is taking a hit this year, she said, due largely to plunging sales of a la carte items and in-school payments from students. The deficit could approach $800,000.
“In the long run, we could simplify all of this and embark on a national endeavor to get every kid access to healthy food,” Gould said. “We have the power to improve kids' school performance, to address childhood obesity, and to reduce the stigma of poverty. This could be the start of something great.”
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