Pressed into unprecedented duty, schools wrestle with how to feed Louisiana’s children during a pandemic

Photo by Travis Gauthier
A lunch-line worker delivers food at Lafayette Middle

The gist: Never intended to be a crisis food supply, Louisiana’s schools are nevertheless grappling with how to play that role during a pandemic, balancing unprecedented logistical and public safety challenges. At least 32 Louisiana school districts will no longer hand out grab-and-go food boxes to school-age children from school distribution sites, a large chunk of the state’s school-based food supply chain, according to state education officials. 

Fear among food workers running the distribution lines that have fed thousands of children led to staffing shortages in some districts, alongside widespread safety concerns over the coronavirus. Districts are opting out of the distribution-site approach, introduced by the state Department of Education last week, in favor of new options cobbled together by the state. 

DOE confirmed at least 32 parish and city districts had suspended their programs early this week, following the governor’s stay-at-home order that took effect Monday evening. The order did not close the distribution centers, but it did elevate concern among school officials about the course of the pandemic and its threat to their employees and communities. Other districts may have since opted out, DOE spokeswoman Sydni Dunn says, and they are aware of others considering alternate plans. 

The state has urged districts to keep going at least until Friday. Scrambling to keep food supplies in circulation, DOE has put together several options to allow some flexibility, district-to-district. 

“Following the proclamation, on a call with you all, Mark Cooper, the Governor’s chief of staff, listened and acknowledged the concerns you all had regarding the directive,” Acting State School Superintendent Beth Scioneaux writes in a memo to school districts sent this week. “He committed to creating new models for the delivery of meals, but he also pointed out the challenge of creating a one-size-fits-all solution to a service that currently takes many forms.” 

Districts can choose among four food distribution plans. One is to continue with the current procedure — designated grab-and-go pickup sites, typically schools, staffed with school employees in protective gear — but DOE provided three new options that would be acceptable to state officials in a bid to keep food supplies running. State education officials are working on another public plan, gathering data that could be used in concert, according to the memo.

“Closing schools means putting our children at risk of hunger,” Scioneaux writes. “But thanks to your dedication and creativity, hundreds of thousands of meals have been served to our children in the last week alone.”  

Many of the districts still running the grab-and-go plan, including Lafayette Parish and other Acadiana districts, may yet opt out for one of the other plans

Here are the range of options available to school districts: 

  • Continue grab-and-go distribution at school sites 
  • Work with a local food provider, e.g. a restaurant 
  • Contract a commercial provider 
  • Apply for a direct-to-family delivery program

Several Acadiana districts are applying for an emergency version of Meals-to-You. St. Martin Parish applied for and was approved for the program, developed by the USDA and Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, which ships shelf-stable foods direct to families, normally during the summer when most schools are out of session. St. Martin Parish Schools Superintendent Allen Blanchard Jr. says it was the most immediate and actionable option laid out, noting that the turnaround process for approval was quick. St. Martin was accepted within 12 hours of applying. Acadia Parish has also applied for the program. 

Nutrition staffer bag lunches to feed Lafayette’s school-age children. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Blanchard had intended to continue hot meal service — distributing hot dogs, hamburgers and vegetables to any school age child in St. Martin Parish – through Friday, as requested by the state. But on Monday evening, he had to make the call to stop abruptly, Blanchard says, out of emerging safety concerns for both his staff and the public at large. He declined to go into specifics but confirmed that COVID-19 was the primary cause for a change; he consulted with the state and other parish officials, and they backed up his decision. 

“It was a very difficult decision. The meal program was popular,” Blanchard says, underscoring the unprecedented dilemma school officials now face: Be a convenient source of food at the risk of spreading disease, or find another option that may not be as accessible. 

By Monday, St. Martin sites were serving 1,200 to 1,300 kids daily. The uncertainty surrounding where those families would go for food supplies — Blanchard notes they’d received no complaints from families — made moving quickly to get in the queue for the Meals-to-You program paramount. The quick acceptance has Blanchard hopeful the application process will be open for families by the end of the week. Meals-to-You has a two- or three-day turnaround, supplying meals for several days at a time. 

The other options wouldn’t work for St. Martin Parish. A rural and largely impoverished parish, St. Martin doesn’t have restaurants or vendors big enough to meet the demand for food supplies. Fast-food chains and mom-and-pop restaurants can’t churn out enough meals. Beyond that, Blanchard says most of the nonprofit food pantries — entities like Second Harvest, which has begun delivery — are staffed with retirees, a demographic at high risk in the pandemic. 

Lafayette Parish is in a wait-and-see mode. LPSS is serving roughly 5,000 meals each day at 13 school sites throughout the parish, down from the 15 launched when the system started feeding last week. Staff shortages shut down sites at Broussard Middle and Milton Elementary.

Food security is an emerging issue across the state. Nonprofit organizations, not just school districts, are working on how to safely get food to those who need it. Second Harvest Food Bank has rolled out delivery options for the first time ever. Donated and purchased food supplies are declining. COVID-19 has disrupted all the normal channels of emergency food, says Melinda Taylor, who chairs Acadiana Volunteer Organizations Against Disaster, a coordinated effort of nonprofits. School systems aren’t normally in charge of food efforts of this scale in a disaster. That they are at all is a hallmark of how coronavirus has vexed public and nonprofit service organizations. 

“There’s a system for delivering food aid as part of a disaster. In most instances, in the past, it’s been big organizations that have these food systems that get out aid,” Taylor says. “But in this instance, it’s entirely different.”