The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every Washingtonian. For some, it’s the simple inconvenience of staying at home and watching Netflix. With others, it can be as serious as running out of food. Before the pandemic, school lunch programs were sometimes the only meal children got each day. With schools canceled, the need is more now than ever. Thankfully, there are people out there like those keeping the Bethel School District’s Meals in Motion school lunch program going, to help meet these needs head-on, sometimes right to their front door.
Before the pandemic, the Bethel School District Child Nutrition Services program was no less impressive. When working at 100% capacity, the department’s staff churned out over 15,000 meals every day for students and staff, with 30 separate meal sites to divvy them up.
“This is our responsibility,” says Leeda Beha, director of Child Nutrition Services at the Bethel School District. “We are in the business of feeding kids, all kids. About half of the students in Bethel qualify for free and reduced-price meals. During the school year, we know a child who is hungry and is experiencing food insecurity is not going to be able to concentrate in the classroom. Our goal is to support the whole child, including their nutritional health, well-being, physical growth and development. Well-nourished students have the best chance of achieving academic success and thriving overall.” This video shows how intense the process is every single day prior to the pandemic.
Once COVID-19 began to rear its ugly head and schools closed, the Child Nutrition Services team quickly shifted gears. Their staffing dropped to 67% capacity. However, feeding the children was still first and foremost on their minds. The Summer Food Service Program, the one typically used during the summer months and emergencies, was put into place, along with a few hoops to jump through.
“In order to maintain social distancing, the USDA provided waivers so school districts could serve ‘grab and go’ meals in a curbside format because typical regulations do not allow this to occur,” says Beha. “The Child Nutrition Office at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has done an amazing job helping school districts get their grants switched over so that we would be able to secure some funding to run the emergency feeding programs.”
Changing the entire game plan more than halfway through the school year was not an easy thing to do. It took six weeks before Beha would feel comfortable enough to call it the new normal. “You have to think through the entire system and identify what will stay the same, what needs to change, how to change it, implement, evaluate, assess and fine-tune and modify as new information comes out,” Beha explains. “For example, health checks and masks were not required when we first started. Obviously, now that has changed and been implemented. Manufacturers and suppliers are running out of items, so we have to keep adapting as we go.”
With the new program in place, the system is producing around 8,200 meals a day, maintaining eight Meals in Motion sites and ten bus routes for at-home delivery. “The goal was to provide a service for all families, but especially continue to meet the need for the families who are in food-insecure households and any other families who have been economically impacted by the COVID Crisis.”
“Hunger is REAL,” stresses Beha. “School meal programs are here to feed your kids and will continue to do so. We will be feeding kids through the summer months as well. Bethel has served over 320,000 meals to our community since the closure. Our Hunger task force is handing out weekend meal power packs every other weekend. We have had two mobile food pantries, food drives hosted by the Graham Rotary and a food pantry run by our awesome school counselors at GKHS that runs from 10:00-1:00 p.m. every Friday. We are here, ready to help.”
Contact your school district to find out how and where to get meals, or read the article SouthSoundTalk published by district. It’s important to note that because of the ever-changing circumstances of this pandemic, school districts are aware that financial circumstances change. Families are still able to apply for the free or reduced-price meal program with their applicable school district to see if they are eligible. Be sure to check out these fun videos on how the kitchen staff and the bus drivers are working hard to make sure students get the food they need.