New York City feeds over 1.1 million kids every day. Now, with public schools shut due to coronavirus, its mission is much harder—and even more important.

By Andrea Strong
March 26, 2020
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On Monday March 16th, all New York City public schools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving 1.1 million children in the nation's largest public school system without a place to go for school—and more critically—for food. 

New York City is only second to the U.S. military in terms of the number of American people it feeds. On a typical day, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services’ (OFNS) 9,000 school-food workers serve 600,000 lunches and 250,000 breakfasts across 1,970 schools; that’s a total of 170 million meals a year. OFNS does this for free—no lunch shaming in this city—which has resulted in a 4.4% increase in participation, or 26,000 more meals served per day to New York City’s hungry children. 

And New York City has a lot of hungry children. According to Hunger-Free America, the number of people living in food insecure households—defined as those unable to afford an adequate supply of food —amounted to more than one million NYC residents in 2017, but with the COVID-19 crisis closing businesses, many New Yorkers who previously worked for modest wages or depended on tips to survive, have suddenly lost jobs and suffered from dramatic reductions in incomes. Meaning that number is already on the rise. 

Given how many food-insecure students rely on school for two free daily meals, it’s easy to understand why the prospect of shutting public schools across the city was such a difficult decision for the De Blasio administration. Maintaining education was a factor, but even more crucial was figuring out how to ensure all those kids remained fed. 

In the span of days, the logistics of feeding the city’s 1.1 million public school children was spearheaded by the OFNS team, led by Executive Director Chris Tricarico and longtime team members Stephen O’Brien, Armando Tadei and Nicole Scarengello, who were tasked with figuring out how to ensure no New York City child would be without food during the COVID closures.

School cafeterias across New York City may be empty, but lunch is still in session.
Mint Images / Getty Images

 

During the first week of school closures, OFNS served grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at every school for children ages 18 and under from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm. No identification of any kind is ever required. During that first week, the city served roughly 560,000 meals. 

By the second week, beginning March 23rd, OFNS shifted to a model similar to its summer meals program, opening a total of 449 targeted meal sites, with a focus on high-need neighborhoods. "One hundred of the sites were high-participation sites in Summer, 2019, and the remaining sites are schools where more than 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced meals," said the Mayor in a statement to the press. 

The program has now served approximately 868,000 meals since the shuttering of schools, a staggering number that demonstrates impressive agility for a mammoth organization facing unprecedented adversity.

"That they have been able to get things in place so rapidly, turning such a massive system on a dime," said Liz Accles, Executive Director of Community Food Advocates, the nonprofit responsible for moving the City to adopt Universal Free Lunch. "How do you even capture what an enormous task that is? There is nothing that compares to the scale. They have moved quickly and decisively to get meals out."

The current grab-and-go program is especially impressive in the ways it differs from any previous school meals programs. 

For the first time ever, Grab-and-Go sites (open 7:30 am to 1:30 pm) are offering dinner in addition to breakfast and lunch. The addition of that third meal has been a tremendous help to families, especially since many meals are vegetarian and suitable for households that only eat halal or kosher foods. 

"I really like that you can pick up dinner, and they expressly said you can get the three meals at once and that parents can pick up on behalf of kids," said Justine Butler, who lives in East Flatbush and has twins in the 4th grade. "All of that makes it easier for families." 

All grab-and-go meals include nut-butter alternatives and shelf-stable milk, as well as milk alternatives, which parents like Justine Butler appreciate. "My kids don't really drink white cow's milk, but I appreciate that it is shelf stable. I can hold onto it for cooking and baking," she said. 

To ensure that medically fragile students are also able to receive daily meals, the City has for the first time partnered with DoorDash to deliver OFNS meals. Food delivery is also being made available to children who reside in City shelters. The City has already identified 800 students as being the most medically fragile related to COVID-19 and more than 120 students have opted into the program. The Department of Education anticipates needing anywhere between 500 and 750 meals delivered daily until at least April 20.

The other significant differences in this meal program are that parents can pick up all meals without having their children present and that meals can be eaten off premises. Ordinarily, during non-COVID school closures, such as summer break and holidays, federal rules require children to be accompanied by an adult to pick up their meals and also require children to remain on site to eat their meals, never grab-and-go. But the USDA has waived the so-called “Congregate Feeding Requirement” to allow school districts across the country to serve meals in a non-congregate setting “to support access to nutritious meals while minimizing potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.” There are also reports that City Hall is working on a new plan to distribute meals to any adult who shows up to a select list of schools.

Researchers at Teachers College’ Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy have compiled a working list of how other school districts are handling food during school closures; for instance, cities like Chicago are giving three days worth of meals at once. New York City’s program is one of the best, especially given its size, they said. 

"New York City is doing really well in the context of other urban districts, giving out three meals at once during a fairly long time window. There is no ID required, and there are many, many sites," said Claire Raffel, Deputy Director of the Tisch Center. "NYC has quickly pivoted this enormous, complex operation under real duress."  

While the access to three free meals has been rolled out with amazing speed, concerns over the safety of food service workers—who are in essence operating at the front lines of the city’s response to the sweeping pandemic—have been raised in recent days. 

The Daily News reported that many workers, including ones who are elderly or have chronic health conditions, say they’re working without social distancing and have been offered little in the way of protection. This on the heels of news that several school districts —two in Louisiana and Tennessee—that have stopped serving meals because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.  

The Mayor’s office has emphasized that they have implemented safety precautions to protect school food workers and that food service workers over 70 are not required to work and will still be paid. The City reports that they are ensuring every food service employee receives the gloves they need to do their job safely while the city prioritizes masks for use within the medical field. 

"Our food service workers are on the front-line of ensuring our community remains healthy and we're so grateful for their service,” said Nathaniel Styer, press officer in the New York Department of Education. "Every food distribution center has been given directions on how to maintain social distancing protocols, each staff member is required to wear gloves, and distribution sites are set up in lobbies and entrance ways in buildings that are deep cleaned daily."

While the system is not perfect, what is clear is this: as the City struggles to balance the dangers of a deadly pathogen against the need to feed over one million children a day, the critical value of its school food program has become even more apparent. 

"This is an often maligned program, but it is so fundamental to families, communities, and children," said Accles. "Nothing has made that more clear than what is happening right now. The enormous food insecurity that we have known has existed is now growing. You may know that you have enough food for two weeks, but it’s a different experience for families who don't know where their next meals come from, and who are now even more vulnerable. School food is reliably filling that need." 

To find a School Food site, “search “Free Meals” on schools.nyc.gov or call 311 to find a site near them. Families can also text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 to find a meal near them. A complete list of meal hubs is available here. Community Food Advocates has also created a map for school meal pickup sites.