600 Meals, 4 Hours: Inside One School Kitchen Keeping D.C. Families Fed As the pandemic leaves many jobless and struggling to pay for essentials, school systems across the D.C. region are spending more and dipping into reserves to continue feeding students.
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NPR logo 600 Meals, 4 Hours: Inside One School Kitchen Keeping D.C. Families Fed

600 Meals, 4 Hours: Inside One School Kitchen Keeping D.C. Families Fed

D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation employees hand out food at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast D.C. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Hours before the first families arrive to pick up the day's breakfast and lunch from Kelly Miller Middle School, four cafeteria workers bustle in the kitchen.

They drop pears and milk cartons into brown paper bags. They prepare the barbecue chicken. A team of three normally assembles the meals but today they need an extra pair of hands because it is Tuesday, and more families are expected to show up to the campus in Northeast Washington.

"Even if you don't attend this particular school, if you are a person that needs to be fed, we're here to feed you," said Shay McCray, an operations manager with D.C. Central Kitchen, a community kitchen that supplies meals to public schools in the city and local organizations that serve people in need.

Since the novel coronavirus shuttered campuses in D.C. and across the region, the school has provided free breakfast and lunch. In a few hours, a van would arrive in front of the middle school carrying groceries that families could grab at no cost.

As the pandemic continues to upend daily life, leaving people jobless and struggling to pay for essentials, schools — and their kitchens — have become even more of a lifeline for struggling families.

In Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest school system in Maryland, officials say they may spend extra local dollars to continue feeding students during the closures.

In D.C., which has distributed 221,000 meals since schools closed, adults are also provided food. Unlike meals for children, those cannot be reimbursed by the federal government.

Meals in the city are distributed at 30 schools on weekdays. Earlier this month, the city launched "grocery distribution sites" at ten campuses where families can pick up a bagful of fresh produce.

The groceries are provided once a week at each of the schools. Last Tuesday, the first where groceries were given out at Kelly Miller, nearly 650 breakfasts and lunches were also served — the highest since the middle school canceled in-person classes, said Rashida Thompson, who leads the school's kitchen.

More families are coming for meals, Thompson said. She hopes the numbers keep growing. She enjoys "being able to greet people, being on the front lines."

But it takes a lot to keep a community fed.

'We're Going To Need To Do More'

On a regular school day, Thompson's kitchen prepared 300 or 400 meals, providing hot items such as mashed cauliflower.

But the menu has changed dramatically since campuses closed. Meals are bagged. Breakfast and lunch are given out at the same time. Schools focus on providing food that will not spoil quickly.

"It's really changed how our school foods program has run," said Edward Kwitoski, who directs the school food program at D.C. Central Kitchen. The organization serves meals at a dozen D.C. Public Schools.

Meal sites are among the first services to reopen in an emergency, according to Chris Geldart, D.C.'s Director of Public Works, who is overseeing the city's response to COVID-19.

"When we've had to close schools, we very quickly have got schools back open, at least to feed a couple meals a day," he said.

Geldart said he has learned from past natural disasters, including the derecho storm that cut a path of destruction across several states in 2012. But the nature of the coronavirus has also created challenges.

Public health experts have advised people to practice social distancing. Residents were directed to use the city's public transportation, which is running on an abbreviated schedule, for essential purposes only. More people are struggling financially because of lost jobs.

"We realized and knew, early on, that we were going to need to do more than what we normally do," said Geldart, who once directed the Washington region's FEMA office.

The city serves about 10,000 meals at schools each day, with schools closed. It spent an extra $750,000 to provide groceries at campuses. City officials expect the federal government will use emergency money to reimburse the city for some expenses incurred during the pandemic.

In Montgomery County, the school system has served more than 1.1 million meals at no cost to children since March 16. Derek Turner, a spokesman for the school system, said it is unclear how much extra money the district will spend on meals with campuses closed through at least May 15.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for meals provided to students. The federal agency has also waived some requirements for its school nutrition programs, providing more flexibility for schools to provide meals.

Turner said the school system is consulting with government officials to calculate how much money the school system will be reimbursed.

In the meantime, Turner said "this is a high priority and we will continue to support it."

Elsewhere, school systems said they will not be able to recoup some money spent to feed children during the pandemic.

On March 16, school workers gave away 144 lunches in an hour at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

In Arlington County, school system officials say the federal reimbursement will not be enough to cover the additional labor or packaging the district has spent for its "grab and go" meals. The Northern Virginia school system has served about 90,000 meals since its campuses closed in the middle of March.

'These are my babies'

Shortly after 10 a.m. at the Kelly Miller campus, Thompson sits behind a plastic table, tallying the number of meals that are plucked from a hot bar where the bagged meals sit.

"Hey, good morning," Thompson chirps to the first few people who walk through the door.

She welcomes two of her "regulars" and a father there to feed his family of six, reminding people to stay six feet apart. Each person is allowed three bags, each filled with breakfast and lunch.

They step in front of the hot bar, tell Thompson how many bags they need and leave before the next person enters. No one is allowed beyond the entryway.

When classes are in session, students at Kelly Miller are given free lunch through a federal program that automatically provides meals to children in the nation's highest poverty schools. All children at the school, nearly all of whom are black, are considered economically disadvantaged.

One parent, Tenisha McDonald, collects meals for her eight children. The mother has not been able to work her regular cashier shifts at Safeway because she must stay home to watch her children, all 12 or under.

McDonald said she visits the school for meals three or four times a week. The family relies solely on her husband's income as an electrician's aide, and the food helps them get by. They also remind McDonald's children of school, she said.

"I'm not getting all the money I usually get," the mother said, before loading the meals for her children into a box. "It helps me stretch food throughout the month."

Thompson has worked at D.C. Central Kitchen for eight years. She was stationed at Charles R. Drew Elementary School before Kelly Miller, watching children grow up and transition to middle school.

The students seek her out when she is on break, she said. She asks about their classes, keeping tabs on their grades. With the campus closed, she worries about the children who show up for meals. For some, Thompson said it could be the only food they eat all day.

"Sometimes they don't eat at home, so I do worry," she said. "These are my babies."

Two Vans, Empty Within An Hour

A van filled with bags of fruit and vegetables from Martha's Table, a non-profit that provides resources for families in need, pulls outside Kelly Miller.

Two minutes before volunteers were expected to start handing out groceries, a line of people snaked around a corner of the middle school's expansive, brick building. After less than 30 minutes, half the van was empty.

Martha's Table, a non-profit organization in D.C., hands out groceries outside Kelly Miller Middle School once a week. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Martha's Table operates two vans every weekday, each carrying 300 plastic grocery bags filled with apples, bananas, potatoes and onions. Some people stand in line for elderly neighbors who cannot easily leave their homes, said Erica Lonesome, who manages outreach and engagement at the non-profit.

The vans are usually empty within an hour.

"People need food," Lonesome said.

Some families, after picking up the groceries outside Kelly Miller, head straight for bagged lunches at the school entrance.

Inside, Thompson tracks the number of meals the school served for the day. The final tally at 2 p.m.: 534. The school handed out 223 breakfasts and lunches, each, to adults and 44 of each to children.

In the kitchen, cafeteria workers assemble ham and cheese sandwiches, preparing for the next day.

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