22 Million Kids Rely on School for Meals. Here's What They're Doing During Closures.

School systems across the country weigh "grab-and-go" schemes to feed low-income kids while not exposing them or staff to COVID-19.
March 12, 2020, 4:29pm
Students eat their lunch in the cafeteria at Doby Elementary School in Apollo Beach, Florida on October 4, 2019.

Seattle shuttered its public schools on Thursday for two weeks to reduce the risk of students and staff contracting or spreading COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Seattle’s is the largest school system to close in the face of the pandemic, but as other large systems such as New York City, Chicago, and Miami-Dade consider closing too, they’re contending with the issue of feeding the 22 million low-income kids who rely on school-provided lunch and breakfast.


“For hundreds of thousands of students, school may be the one place where they are guaranteed hot meals and medical care,” said Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York. “We know that as the city weighs the possible benefits of school closure, they're also weighing the possible risks of temporarily shuttering critical social service centers."

In Seattle, more than a quarter of the district’s nearly 54,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the district’s data. For those students, the district is planning to hand out meals starting Monday. Some individual schools and teachers also sent kids home this week with suitcases and rolling backpacks full of food, according to the Seattle Times.

The Northshore School District, near Seattle, also said it would keep its 22,000 students from attending school during the outbreak and offer online learning instead. That district is providing limited home food delivery and distributing meals to special drop-sites for students impacted by the school closures.

Typically, by law, the government requires that needy kids eat their free or reduced lunches at school or in group settings. But now the U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting waiver requests so students can take their meals home. Washington State applied for, and received, one of those waivers.

"If schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Monday.


Meanwhile, in New York City — the county’s largest public school system with more than 1.1 million kids, 74% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals — the school district is reluctant to close all at once, knowing the issues it’d pose for parents too poor to afford child care and regular meals.

Yet officials are offering grab-and-go service for kids who need to pick up their breakfasts and lunch because they can’t while their schools — shuttered now only on a limited case-by-case basis — are closed.

Private and charter schools in New York City are already doling out food in the event that they eventually close. A charter school in Long Island City, Queens, sent kids home with bags of pasta, beans, and other non-perishable items this week.

And Miami-Dade and Chicago’s school districts are also scrambling to figure out how they’ll ensure kids have the meals they need as more school closures happen, according to CNN.

Right now, though, each state has to apply for the USDA waiver on an individual basis, as the department is unable to issue a new rule to blanket all affected schools, according to NBC News. And the waivers can only apply to areas where more than 50% of kids qualify for the free or reduced-price meals. (A bipartisan coalition of legislators on the House Committee on Education and Labor this week proposed far greater flexibility in providing free meals to those poor kids amid the coronavirus pandemic, without all the rules educators see as burdensome.)

Advocates are working to fill the gaps left by mass school closures. Hunger Free America is trying to get more funding for other organizations' Meals on Wheels program, said Joel Berg, the organization’s CEO, so they can distribute more food directly to homes or specific drop sites.

“This just shows how horrible it is that we don’t have paid sick leave, we don’t have guaranteed child care, we don’t have universal healthcare, that people don’t have enough money for food,” Berg said. “These disasters tend to rip the bandage off the wounds that were sort of covered, and so when these things happen, you have a better view of all the festering social problems that were there before but just became worse.”

Cover: Students eat their lunch in the cafeteria at Doby Elementary School in Apollo Beach, Florida on October 4, 2019. In Hillsborough County, students pay $2.25 for lunch. (Photo by Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post via Getty Images)