Image: Jane Sherman

To many in Seattle, school means more than just education. Nearly 15,000 students rely on free or reduced lunches every day in the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) system alone. When all city schools closed through April 24 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it didn’t just present an education problem; it posed a potential hunger crisis too.

SPS acted quickly to address the latter. Starting on March 16, the school system opened 26 locations across Seattle to distribute meals to children in need. Between 11am and 1pm, students and their families can visit these locations and pick up meals to be eaten elsewhere.

Early on, not enough were. About 900 meals were handed out the first day, and almost 1,600 the next, significantly trailing the number of lunches usually dispensed to students reliant on them. But this week started much stronger: Over 3,500 meals were given out on Monday.

“The meals do have a shelf life of a few days, and we expect to be able to use them,” says SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson. “These first few days have been a good way for our nutrition services department to assess need, supply, demand, etc., and to optimize service.”

Meals change daily but will always include meat, grains, fruit, vegetables, and milk, following USDA guidelines. According to SPS nutrition services director Aaron Smith, the department has had to change their food orders to cold, grab-and-go types of fare. And most prep work now happens at the department's central kitchen located inside the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence in SoDo. Smith himself isn't confined to that institutional space; he tries to visit at least one pick-up site per day to show support and plans on keeping the lunch program going throughout the lockdown. “I’m keeping it going as long as I can, as long as they keep asking us,” he says.  

Many schools outside of Seattle have launched similar lunch programs, but some have taken other measures to ensure their food doesn’t go to waste. Northshore School District and Mercer Island School District are requiring families to preorder meals between 6pm the night before and 9am the day of pick-up. Edmonds School District is offering free meals to its students, and parents can buy themselves or others extra meals for $5.

Meals, of course, aren’t the only thing households rely on the school system for. Childcare is a necessity for many working families. There's been progress on that front: This week, child care services resumed at a few Seattle school sites, with 12 total expected by next week.

And what about, you know, actual schoolwork? On Monday, state superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal ordered all schools to continue learning in one form or another. “Districts and communities are in varying states of readiness to provide continuity of learning, and this guidance is intended to be used as a starting point as planning begins,” says Reykdal.

His letter to districts aimed to minimize equity concerns, saying plans should include a variety of options in different mediums, such as “printed learning materials, phone contact, email, technology-based virtual instruction.” Bottom line: The superintendent expects students to continue their coursework by Monday, March 30.

In Seattle, school is in session—but everyone will be able to take a lunch break.

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