For nearly 30 million children across the United States, the closure of schools to slow the spread of coronavirus created a critical disruption: no more lunch.

These children benefit from the National School Lunch Program, the nation’s second largest food and nutrition assistance program behind SNAP. But with hundreds of thousands of schools closing, kids may not be able to access lunches (and sometimes breakfasts, snacks, and dinners) that they previously were entitled to. Millions of families must now figure out how to feed their kids in a time where money is especially scarce due to lay-offs, cut hours and more during the pandemic.

School staff and volunteers have organized one option to help: drive-thru lunches. The meals, often bagged or boxed, might include sandwiches, milk, fruit cups and Goldfish.

For many school districts, mobilizing drive-thru lunches, a popular option to continue providing food assistance during the summer months, has been hectic on short notice and with no known end to the crisis. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, said, “I’ve never been in a situation like this where we really are at a crisis point and where it’s going to be very difficult for children to get access to food,” Wilson says. “I mean, we’ve had some situations — natural disasters, things like that — where we’ve dealt with things, but nothing like this where we don’t see any end in sight or how we’re actually going to manage it all.”

Federal waivers issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) relaxed rules on what kinds of sites can be used for meal distribution, allowing for the drive-thru model in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C. Schools, churches, parks and other community locations are all being used for pick-up.

Some students still won’t be able to get lunches via the drive-thru model, unfortunately. These might include children with parents who can’t take time off from jobs that don’t offer teleworking and children staying with elderly grandparents who are self-isolating. For some school districts and cities, if students can’t come to pick up their lunch, their lunch will be brought to them by a familiar yellow school bus. The nutrition services director for a Tacoma, Washington school district described the innovation: “Make the food, put it on school buses and then have our bus drivers drive routes. Take it to our highest-needs apartment complexes and housing areas so that way the kids can just come to the bus rather than find a way to get to the school.”

For 33-year-old Summer Mossbarger, a disabled Army veteran in Brenham, Texas, the continuing provision of lunches for her six children has been crucial: “If we didn’t have this, I probably would have a mental breakdown with stress.”

Sources: Food Research and Action Center 03/24/20; NPR 03/20/20; CNN 03/11/20; New York Times 03/20/20.

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