By Daisy Munguia-Pinon, Associate Director of No Kid Hungry California, a campaign of the national non-profit Share Our Strength. She lives in the Inland Empire.
When kids across California returned to school this fall, it marked the third school year impacted by COVID-19. Though students are back in classrooms, districts across the state continue to navigate a magnitude of challenges.
One bright spot amidst ongoing hardship and uncertainty: School kitchens never closed. The compassion and innovative spirit of school nutrition teams, bolstered by Congressional action, ensured kids got nutritious meals throughout this unprecedented crisis.
For example, when Rialto Unified School District transitioned to remote learning in March 2020, the first order of business was figuring out how to ensure school meals remained available for their more than 25,000 students.
“This actually was keeping me up at night, what are we going to do? How are we going to feed kids?” Fausat Rahman-Davies, lead child nutrition agent for Rialto USD, shared in a new micro-documentary by No Kid Hungry. “And then it came to me. In California, everyone has cars.”
Rialto launched parking lot barbecues, offering drive-through meals made from scratch, accompanied by music and a big outdoor dance party. “From nowhere lines and lines of cars showed up. East. West. South. Cars lined up all over town,” Rahman-Davies said.
School leaders created an atmosphere of inclusivity, ensuring the community knew meals were for all kids and parents could accept them without stigma. “I think the culture of it was wonderful,” added Juan Carlos Luna, an elementary school teacher in Rialto. “People felt comfortable, they didn’t feel like they were going to get judged for getting a free meal.”
Rialto became a model for school districts across Southern California and the nation, serving 14.3 million meals last school year alone.
Beyond big hearts and determined local leadership, there was also a transformational shift in public policy, long advocated for and finally accelerated by the dire needs of the pandemic.
Specifically, the USDA enacted waivers and flexibilities permitting schools to provide meals for kids to eat at home, allow parents to pick up meals for their children and provide meals for several days at a time. This meant across the nation, kids who rely on school meals continued to get them safely while schools were closed.
This is vitally important. Hunger impacts children’s ability to learn – something we cannot afford when many students already face steep learning loss from time out of the classroom, and Black, Latino and low-income students saw the steepest learning loss of all, exacerbating existing racial and economic inequities.
Congress also invested in families through new and expanded programs like SNAP, the enhanced Child Tax Credit and Pandemic-EBT, allowing parents to buy enough groceries to have nutritious food at home.
The outcome? Despite the significant economic hardship many California families faced throughout the pandemic, food insecurity remained virtually unchanged. This is dramatically different than in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, when food insecurity skyrocketed and took nearly a decade to rebound.
But the levers pulled so successfully this time are only temporary.
The move by the California State Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom to establish a statewide universal meals program that will last beyond the pandemic is an encouraging step forward that acknowledges the important role of school meals in ending child hunger and promoting equity.
As California continues leading the way in championing free school meals, we need federal leaders to step up to the plate too. Congress must extend or make permanent the nutrition programs and policies proven so effective, which will remain vital in our recovery.
Just because kids are back in school this fall, it doesn’t mean we should go back to pre-pandemic normal. This crisis illuminated deep, systemic inequities across society, but also highlighted policy solutions that are effectively supporting our most vulnerable. We have the opportunity to incorporate lessons learned and build back even stronger for California’s children.