Candice Hagar remembers listening to Gov. Eric Holcomb's announcement on March 19. “When the governor decided to shut the schools, we had 24 hours to put together a plan,” Hagar recalled. “We moved to a summer feeding operation, and parents could pick up a meal for their kids every day.”
Hagar directs Fort Wayne Community Schools' massive Nutrition Services program, and worked with her staff to come up with ways to provide nutritious meals to all district students. But it didn't turn out that way.
“Only about 20 to 30% of families picked up meals,” Hagar said, adding that the numbers haven't picked up since schools reopened in August.
The falloff in demand for school meals has been a national phenomenon as the pandemic rages. Researchers at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health found that schools developed all kinds of innovative ways to provide nutritious meals for kids at the outset, but an estimated 1.1 billion breakfasts and lunches weren't claimed by students or their parents, and were never served.
Widespread economic disruption, a half million Hoosiers out of work and reports of dramatic increases in the number of food-insecure households leave observers wondering why nutritious,easily-prepared meals are left unclaimed.
Hagar said her staff is serving students meals in one of three ways. For those students who returned five days a week, they either pick up daily meals to be safely eaten in their classrooms or the school cafeteria. Students who are there on alternate days can take home a frozen meal to be eaten on the days they are home and learning online. Families with children who are remote learning full time can pick up a week's worth of meals each week at the district high schools. But, overall, fewer than half of students take meals home.
“We can't force a child to take a meal home at the end of the day,” Hagar said. “I think there are a lot of different reasons why they don't. A child may feel like there's a stigma with taking food home, even though we offer meals to everyone.”
Children of working parents may be home alone, and may not be allowed to use the stove or microwave to heat their food, she added, and some working parents may not be able to pick up meals late in the day for their remote learners.
FWCS schools took the opportunity six years ago to use federal funds to provide free breakfast and lunches for all elementary students, Hagar said, and the program was expanded two years ago to include all middle and high school students, regardless of family income.
But the pandemic has upended everything.
“It has been a struggle for all of us,” Hagar said. “Manufacturers are having trouble producing what we need. They have staffing issues that make everything harder.”
As families struggle to figure out how to keep their students safe, well nourished, housed and learning at school or remotely, it's good to remember the institutions that are there to serve them can help them survive.