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When Texas Schools Close, How Do Vulnerable Kids Get Their School Lunch?

As the rising number of COVID-19 cases rises in the region, a slew of local school districts have closed. And now they need to figure out how to deliver meals to vulnerable students.

Students in class at Wheatley High School.
Chris Paul | Houston Public Media
Students in class at Wheatley High School. HISD and other local school districts are making plans to feed kids as the coronavirus leads to school closures.

In Texas, more than 3 million students get meals through the National School Lunch Program. So closing school can mean children go home hungry.

That’s one reason school leaders are reluctant to shut down campuses.

“There’s already an extremely high level of food insecurity in Texas, particularly among children and the elderly,” said Celia Cole, who leads Feeding Texas, a network of 21 food banks in the state.

But with the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the region, a slew of school districts in Greater Houston have decided to suspend class or extend spring break late last week. And now they need to figure out how to deliver meals to vulnerable students in other ways.

Cole said that federal authorities have already made it easier for schools dealing with outbreaks in California and Washington to serve meals offsite, and that more Texas school districts could adopt a similar “grab and go” option.

“It would be almost like a drive-through, you know, meal service,” Cole said.

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Officials at Houston Independent School District have opened 31 food-distribution sites across the city while classes are cancelled. The district will also offer curbside pickup to adhere to “social distancing,” a term referring to reducing contact between people to avoid virus transmission. Those without transportation can line up outside the buildings, but must stand six feet apart from one another, district officials said.

In Klein, administrators have set up free drive-through or curbside meals for all students at four sites from March 16-17. Klein ISD plans to give families enough free meals to cover the entire week for anyone 18 years old or younger in the household.

With classes in Aldine closed, students can get free breakfast and hot lunches at a curbside service at select campuses from March 16 until March 23. Fort Bend Independent School District, which enrolls some 78,000 students, said it’s coming up with its own distribution plan.

In a conference call with chief state school officers and the U.S. Department of Education, administrators with the USDA said the agency will use all the flexibility it has and contigency plans to serve participants across its 15 nutrition programs. USDA has already begun to issue waivers.

Cole added food banks in the state have already assembled some 25,000 meals to prepare for the pandemic.