Food service employees are among the few workers in school districts physically reporting for work every day during the pandemic lockdowns, joining front-line efforts to keep needy kids fed and safe.
“Our jobs are not necessarily monetarily driven, they’re more mission-driven,” said Irene Wan, director of Maplewood Richmond Heights School District’s food service division. “We’re here to serve people, we’re here to serve our families.”
Districts throughout the region have prepped, packed and handed out more than 100,000 meals — breakfasts and lunches — to kids around the St. Louis region. Demand for food has increased in St. Louis, with 1,400 more meals served last week than the one prior.
But then the virus struck the front lines.
Two Ferguson-Florissant employees died last week, one of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The district is not handing out meals this week as it overhauls its preparation and distribution strategy.
Now the district is looking into buying pre-made meals and handing them out through Operation Food Search, an area food bank, as well as United Way and the Red Cross.
“We are getting a lot of folks involved as we have suspended this week and try to come up with options moving forward,” said Superintendent Joseph Davis during a school board meeting Wednesday.
Hazelwood, a district of about 17,500 students in far northern St. Louis County, will switch to giving out a week's worth of meals on Mondays, starting next week. It’s served nearly 25,000 breakfasts and lunches so far, said Kimberly McKenzie, Hazelwood’s communications director.
Riverview Gardens, also in north St. Louis County, will no longer give out meals, citing the risk to the health of staff.
Kansas City Public Schools stopped feeding kids this week after a worker became ill. KCPS is the largest district in the state to suspend meal service. It served 65,000 meals over two weeks, a district official said.
“It’s really wrenching for us. It was really hard,” KCPS spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said about the decision.
Last week, Raytown Schools, southeast of Kansas City, had to stop handing out meals after a food service worker tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Just west of St. Louis, Maplewood Richmond Heights paused service for two days when a worker had a fever, which later subsided. MRH’s Wan told employees at the start of the week to take additional safety precautions.
“I definitely made an announcement to all of my employees to, if you have masks, wear them; if you can make them, make them and wear them,” Wan said.
Parkway, in west St. Louis County, paused meals for at least a week, though the district’s chief financial officer, Patty Bedborough, said it will likely be longer. The district was serving about 425 students a day and is considering moving to a once- or twice-a-week delivery.
Leaning on food banks
In lieu of schools serving out meals directly, districts are pointing families to local food banks. But the economic toll of the pandemic is already increasing demand at those pantries.
“We completely expected that as the virus spread, and as more people became infected, that it was very likely that school districts would be impacted and would have to modify their meal service or discontinue meal service,” Operation Food Search’s Trina Ragain said.
Operation Food Search started its summer meals program for kids nearly three months early. It’s given out 18,000 meals at 10 locations, mostly St. Louis County Library branches, since mid-March, in a program that usually starts in June.
“We're almost at capacity with some of those 10 meal sites that we're operating. We are putting out food as quickly as we can,” said Ragain.
Food banks across the state say they have enough food currently for children and adults, but there are glitches in sourcing it all.
“We are having some trouble. We currently have quite a bit of fresh produce, which is good, but we are having a few challenges, particularly with things like canned proteins and meats, peanut butter, that kind of thing,” said Sarah Biles, director of communications for Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City. “We are seeing some lag in the delivery time.”
Government officials have temporarily beefed up cash nutrition assistance programs, often referred to as food stamps. And Ragain said Operation Food Search will have the funding to continue its summer meal program through the summer even with the early start.
Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services will distribute food boxes prepared by regional food banks to an estimated 90,000 people at 200 locations around the state, the department announced Thursday. Those deliveries will continue through early May.
KCUR’s Elle Moxley contributed reporting for this story.
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