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The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that schools are lifelines for children not just during the school year but also during the summer months.

Traditionally, schools are able to reach a portion of students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. But, nationwide, the 3.76 million children who receive summer meals through this program are a small segment of the 22 million children who receive free or reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program.

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Forty percent of U.S. households with mothers who have children age 12 or under are experiencing food insecurity, according to a recent survey. In the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), we are seeing this new reality among our students and families. With unemployment rates elevated for the foreseeable future, the need for nutritious meals has reached a level we’ve never seen before as a nation.

Traditionally, SFUSD students would rely on free summer meals programs, often run by schools or community organizations. Yet, our schools remain closed. Camps have been canceled.

To address these new challenges, the district is building upon successes — both those before the coronavirus and those we’ve developed in response to the pandemic — to combat the food insecurity that is all too real for so many of our students and families. We’re using federal waivers to revolutionize our summer meal services and ensure that all of our students, especially those in our most vulnerable communities, receive the healthy, delicious meals they need.

We recognize that our meals are the sole source of food security for many families. We understand the gravity of what it means when schools close during the school year and over the summer — that children cannot access food and don’t eat. That’s why, as soon as we knew our schools were closing (for an unknown period of time), we rethought how we’d nourish our kids.

Just as we rose to the occasion to rethink how to shift to healthier school meals, we’ve reimagined how we provide access to the same nutritious meals to our students.

A few things that we’ve learned during our Covid-19 response operations can help district leaders across the nation who are still tackling how to adjust and improve their own emergency meal services.

1. Acknowledge and provide the needed flexibility to carry out an emergency response school meals program, as well as the funding required to make it happen.

To operate a school meals program that serves hundreds of thousands of meals every week is no small task, even in normal circumstances. Having the flexibility to operate in an “emergency response” mode is key.

Federal waivers have been vital in allowing the SFUSD and districts across the country to provide multiple days’ worth of meals to students, to operate grab-and-go meal sites, and to allow parents and caregivers to pick up meals for their children. Such flexibility will continue to be needed as we look to the unknowns of the 2020-21 school year. So will sufficient funding.

While these waivers are essential in allowing us to operate in the wake of the coronavirus, federal and state meal reimbursements are insufficient to cover the general operating costs of the program. To help cover these additional costs and the gap left by federal and state reimbursements, we have turned to generous donations from foundations, companies and individuals. To date, we have received over $1.7 million, which allows us to cover costs for adult meals served at community partner organizations and meals not covered by federal reimbursements.

2. Train staff on how to carry out the logistics of a new meals program safely and successfully.

The school meals industry is unique in that we share resources and best practices with one another. We know that the stakes are high when it comes to making sure no student goes hungry. We all want to ensure we’re not only getting meals into the hands of our students, but also that they are treated with respect.

Our executive director, Jennifer LeBarre, was able to learn from other districts and, in turn, share our resources with them regarding safety measures. We are all experienced when it comes to addressing food-safety issues. Our program was designed to ensure employee safety, and it has evolved as more guidance has been made available about the necessary precautions to prevent illness. At first, our only PPE was gloves. We now require gloves, plastic aprons, face masks and, depending on the task, face shields or plexiglass barriers.

3. Work with an experienced partner who knows how to handle these logistics.

When we made the shift from a traditional school meals program to one that was centered more around our students’ health, interests, and cultural and ethnic backgrounds, we knew that we couldn’t do it on our own. Having a partner help us reimagine our meals program was essential. Revolution Foods’ mission aligns with our commitment to provide access throughout the school day to food that is healthy, culturally diverse, affordable, sustainable and loved by our students.

Together, we transformed school meals and students’ overall relationship with food. And we’ve seen results: Students in California public schools that contract with companies providing healthy school meals, such as Revolution Foods, score higher on state assessments.

SFUSD and Revolution Foods have been able to offer culturally relevant and student-approved favorites, such as chicken taco trios and Korean BBQ beef bowls, all through our grab-and-go meal sites.

Nobody knows what to expect this fall. What we do know is that when our staff, teachers and students return to a “new normal” and school is back in session, the need to nourish our children will continue. Some students who previously didn’t qualify for free school meals now will. We’ve already seen glimpses of just how many families are coming to our emergency meal sites every week.

Imagine if all of our children had equal access to healthy food. We have the opportunity once again to revolutionize how healthy meal programs can be made fully operational and accessible in a time of crisis. We’re one step closer to providing an opportunity for all kids not only to survive but to thrive.

This story about healthy school meals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Orla O’Keeffe is Chief of Policy and Operations for the San Francisco Unified School District.

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Orla O'Keeffe is Chief of Policy and Operations for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

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