Students getting food during a normal day at Eagle Academy PCS
Students getting food during a normal day at Eagle Academy PCS Credit: Noah Frank

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The citywide shutdown to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus has impacted every D.C. resident’s life, shuttering bars and restaurants and prompting raids on toilet paper, pasta, and frozen foods at local grocery stores. But with schools around the city facing potential weeks-long closures with no certain end date, a large percentage of D.C.’s children face a far more basic, pressing concern: How will I eat?

According to the most recent DCPS data, 74 percent of the nearly 50,000 students system-wide qualify as “economically disadvantaged,” meaning they either receive free or reduced-price lunch, attend a school where every student receives it, are eligible to receive TANF or SNAP benefits, are identified as homeless, or are under the care of the Child and Family Services Agency.

Eighty-seven of the 117 public schools across the city meet the federal Community Eligibility Provision, allowing them to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to students. On Friday, March 13, Mayor Muriel Bowserannounced that schools would close Monday, March 16 and reopen Tuesday, March 31 at the earliest, effectively starting a shutdown with an unclear end date. Facing indeterminate closures for the foreseeable future, immediately mobilizing a citywide feeding program was essential.

Starting March 16, DCPS has committed to providing meals not just to their own students, but to any student that needs to be fed. On March 13, Bowser announced the city would start service at 16 sites for students to be able to pick up their meals, with three more added starting Wednesday. The program will also add a shelf-stable breakfast for the following morning beginning Wednesday. According to DCPS, each site is capable of serving up to 1,000 meals each day. The 19 meal distribution locations from now through the end of March are as follows:

The distribution sites “focus on areas of the city that have the highest needs and rates of participation” in free and reduced-price lunch, according to a DCPS spokesperson. Students also won’t have to pick up food at the school they attend. Many students commute across the city to attend school, but food service during the shutdown is available regardless of where they are enrolled.

Considering how quickly plans have taken shape over the last week, school staff Monday at Columbia Heights Education Campus, one of the DCPS distribution sites, seemed impressed with how smoothly everything has come together. The first day’s community participation was slow early on, but expectations among staff are that it will pick up in the days to come as information spreads and more people are affected by shutdowns.

D.C.’s charter schools, which account for more than 43,000 additional students, are not as centralized in their efforts in the same way. But there is a list of 26 charters and counting around the District that will be serving meals, which includes addresses and hours of operation.

At Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Congress Heights, one of the city’s largest elementary charter schools, food service also began Monday. The school distributed roughly 200 food bags with rice, beans and other shelf stable items, along with fresh produce. Starting Tuesday, they offered grab-and-go meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., along with breakfast for the following day.

Eagle is one of the roughly 20 schools across the city that has taken a more aggressive approach to revamping its food program in recent years to include 2.25 cups of fresh fruit and vegetables each day for each student. Its food programming goes far beyond just the antiquated idea of a hot cafeteria lunch. Every student gets breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and those who participate in after care also receive dinner.

Vernal Crooms, the director of food service at Eagle, is part of a group of about a half dozen food service professionals who, through the Office of State Superintendent of Education, bid out food contracts together in their efforts to provide self-prepared, healthy meals for students while keeping costs in check.

“In my opinion, if they receive all their (at school) meals, they won’t need anything else (at home),” Crooms toldCity Paper in an interview before the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of the whole fruits and vegetables that make up such a fundamental part of students’ nutrition are provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). Of the 80 DCPS schools that serve elementary students, 45 are participating in FFVP this year. School food programs are being supported during the shutdown by a combination of state and federal emergency funding, but according to DCPS, “per federal regulations, FFVP can only operate during normal school operations.” While all DCPS meals will continue to include a fruit and a vegetable, the federal pipeline of fresh produce that comprises much of students’ diets at public and charter schools won’t flow until they reopen.

The plan is to continue serving whole fruits and vegetables for the time being at Eagle as well, though the uncertainty of the situation at large trickles down to that level as well. On a one-off closure like a snow day, when much of the city shuts down, the school does its best to triage between the school’s parent liaison and family outreach center.

“We’re not only here to provide them that education, but there’s something about that family support and those wraparound services that we want to make sure they have as well,” says Eagle vice principal Kisha Hale.

But there isn’t really a roadmap for a shutdown of this nature.

“A lot of children are not food secure, so these breaks are an issue for them,” Crooms told City Paper in an interview prior to the outbreak. “A child can’t really function without a balanced meal.”

Over normal, planned breaks in the spring and summer, DCPS participates in regulated programs like the Summer Food Service Program and receives additional support from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Eagle’s summer food programming reduces from the full school population of more than 850 down to 250 to 300, but still follows similar protocols.

But the nature of this particular disruption is unprecedented and has prompted some changes to the way food is prepared and distributed. While Crooms would love to be able to continue hot meal service, sealed to-go containers of cool meals are more practical.

The shutdown happened so quickly and has such an uncertain end date that administrators are left knowing the challenge ahead might look different each morning. But no matter what happens, students will still need to be fed.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” says Hale. “If there’s anything we can do to ensure they’re still going to be here after the break, after the storm, then we definitely tap into our resources to support them.”