While campuses are shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, Humble ISD is making sure its students are continuing to eat nourishing breakfasts and lunches.
“Humble ISD is serving about 10,000 free meals each day by carryout from seven campuses in the district. The meals are for children 1-18 years old and all Humble ISD students. No child is turned away,” said Jamie Mount, chief communications officer for Humble ISD.
In response to the sudden shutdown of all Humble ISD campuses in March due to the coronavirus crisis, everything changed. In order to keep providing education, teachers, maintenance people, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, administration, the students and their parents all scrambled to make it happen. The district began using online curricula, secured and closed buildings, and doing everything else needed to meet the challenges of “Stay at Home.” One of those challenges was faced by the district’s Child Nutrition Program that provides meals each school day to tens of thousands of students.
Closed campuses means no cafeterias, no on-campus food preparation of thousands of meals consumed by students on every campus every day whether they buy them or qualify for free meals. Those students who are unable to afford breakfasts and lunches at school likely cannot afford those meals at all, whether school cafeterias are open or not.
What was the district to do and how? The people in Child Nutrition Services had the answers: Yes, the meals would continue and they would be distributed through a designated school pickup program.
“When we learned during spring break that we were not going to return to school, we immediately started planning, trying to get food into the district and placing all of our (food) orders during spring break. We took the first week after spring break to pull everything together and then immediately, starting Tuesday, March 24, we were out serving meals,” said Nolan Correa, Humble ISD’s associate superintendent of operational support services.
Correa explained that the initial week of planning included all the logistical planning for setting up the distribution system, the food preparation routines and staffing, and gathering the food that was available from the district’s 43 kitchens.
Mount explained the program and its magnitude. It begins with each Monday designated for preparation. Employees from child nutrition services, athletics and transportation help prepare the food for distribution during the week. The meals are prepared and packaged into individual meals in bags for distribution.
She explained that the meals are for all students, regardless of their financial status, and all other children in the family, including those not yet in school down to the age of one year. Parents and older family members are not included in the meal counts. Many of the items in the meals are pre-packaged, which allows for them to be used through the week.
On Tuesdays through Fridays, from 10-11 a.m., breakfast and lunch food is distributed through designated pick-up locations. District staff members bring meals to each vehicle as parents and grandparents drive through school car-rider and bus lanes. Families remain in their cars to maintain physical distancing. Face masks and gloves are worn by the staff. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, one breakfast and one lunch are distributed for each child. On Fridays, two breakfasts and two lunches are distributed for each child.
Meals are distributed at seven locations: Elm Grove Elementary, Foster Elementary, Oaks Elementary, Ridge Creek Elementary School, River Pines Elementary, Humble Middle and Ross Sterling Middle.
Humble ISD is not paying for the meals. The district is reimbursed by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).
“We are staying at about 10,000 meals per day. We work closely with the TDA to ensure they are funding the meals we are serving right now and to make sure we know what we can look for, including the summer. We want to make sure we are doing this correctly and following appropriate procedures and policies to get reimbursed,” Correa said. The pick-up meals are more costly due to the need for individual packaging.
The TDA has a different program for this than they have for other regular school-year programs.
“While campuses are closed, the TDA is providing reimbursement for all meals served without regard to a student’s family income. This allows us to serve meals to all children and not turn any child away. The information we have received to date leads us to believe that reimbursements will cover all, or almost all, of costs for meal service and that the impact to the district budget from feeding children will be minimal,” Mount said.
Mount said the district normally serves 31,000 meals a day with approximately 19,500 meals of those categorized as free or reduced-priced meals.
“Humble ISD has served more than 300,000 meals to children since buildings closed,” Mount said.
“We see everyone thanking the workers all the time for doing this. The kids have brought nice notes to the cafeteria workers and coaches just to say thank you. The community has been very appreciative and we hear it every day,” Correa said.
As far as the future of the program going into the summer is concerned, that is an open question as yet not determined. If school classrooms remain closed for summer but summer classes are taught online, the question of whether to continue will have to be considered.
“The program was specifically created for when the schools were not open. When the schools reopen the program will revert to normal,” Mount said.