Many school districts throughout Southern California are offering free meal distribution services to students during COVID-19.

Food banks have held drive-thru grocery services to support those who have been financially affected by the virus and are experiencing food insecurity, including members of the Latinx community. Like several schools in the U.S., many school districts in Southern California have had to close and transition to online learning to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff during the pandemic. But some schools’ cafeterias remain open, allowing school employees and volunteers to serve meals to those in need.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Los Angeles Unified School District in partnership with the Red Cross continues to offer nutritious meals to all students who need them during the temporary closure of schools.

There are 63 Grab & Go Food Centers locations spread throughout the county that are staffed weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and each child is able to receive two nutritious meals.

Claudia Flores is the assistant principal at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, one of the many food distribution sites in LAUSD. Flores said that a majority of Hollenbeck students rely on free or reduced lunches throughout the school year and that this meal program was very important to provide for the school community.

“Our district had the foresight to see that this school closure would not only impact students' learning, but would impact our parents in the workforce,” said Flores. “Many of our parents have positions at work that do not provide securities and benefits that others might enjoy. And as a result, they tried to be proactive and provide basic necessities for our students in addition to their learning.”

Flores was present during the first week of meal distributions which began on March 18. She said that Hollenbeck’s custodial staff arrive at the middle school campus every morning at 4:30 a.m. to set up the tables that serve as food pick-up stations. While some volunteers work in the cafeteria, others help deliver the food back and forth between the cafeteria and sidewalk distribution station.

While the administration is in charge of the sanitation and health aspects of the Grab and Go Food Centers, Flores said that volunteers and security also work to ensure the safety of everyone involved. They wear face masks and gloves and follow social distancing protocol while delivering the food to the tables, which are constantly wiped and disinfected throughout the process.

Once the Hollenbeck Grab and Go Food Center is open to the community each morning, people are greeted by volunteers and guided through the process. Participants can either drive through a series of cones in their vehicles before stopping and popping open their backseat windows or doors for volunteers to quickly drop off the food. There is also a station for pedestrians — the sidewalk is lined with tape markers to ensure that people in line for the food service are social distancing while they wait.

Flores even mentioned that DJs volunteered to play music during the Grab and Go meal service, which she thought created “a very happy and inviting environment for those who need it.”

Besides the meals, people also began donating diapers, blankets and toys for children at Hollenbeck’ and Flores felt that people were very grateful for the services.

“You can see the generosity and the community,” said Flores. “You could see the gratitude in the community.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is unpredictable, she hopes that LAUSD’s Grab and Go Food Centers will continue to support L.A. students.

“The Superintendent has voiced a very genuine commitment to supporting the community especially struggling economically, which pretty much encompasses the whole economy of the United States,” said Flores. “But our communities that were even struggling economically before quarantine and his commitment, imply that they're going to keep it going as long as possible.”

Superintendent Beutner established a charity called L.A. Students Most in Need, which is accepting donations to support the Grab & Go Food Centers, according to a statement from Barbara Jones who works in the Office of Communications for LAUSD. Since the start of these meal distributions, LAUSD has served over 10 million meals and counting as of Apr. 20.

LAUSD's Grab and Go Food Center at Hollenbeck Middle School has tape markers to keep community members six feet apart during the meal distribution.(Photo Courtesy: Claudia Flores)
LAUSD's Grab and Go Food Center at Hollenbeck Middle School has tape markers to keep community members six feet apart during the meal distribution.(Photo Courtesy: Claudia Flores)

Santa Ana Unified School District

South of Los Angeles, the Santa Ana Unified School District faces similar challenges as LAUSD and is also providing meals for their students through school distribution centers.

Meals including breakfast and lunch are being distributed to children ages 1 to 18 between 11am and 1pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. These meals come at no cost to their families and between March 16 and April 27, approximately 666,000 meals were distributed, consisting of 331,000 breakfasts and 335,000 lunches, according to Valerie Amezcua.

Valerie Amezcua is the Vice President of the SAUSD Board and is concerned about their current ability to reach out to families amid the quarantine. She says that one of the priorities of the SAUSD board is to maintain that outreach and constant communication with the community.

“All of the board members have been pushing the philosophy, “Reach the families. If we haven’t reached them, we have to be fast”,” said Amezcua.

So far, multiple social media accounts are helping with this outreach, which has changed much of the way SAUSD connects to the community. Aside from the SAUSD Instagram (@santaanausd), they have a dedicated SAUSD Nutrition Services Instagram (@sausdnutrition) which provides information regarding the meal distribution centers and provides updates, including highlighting volunteers working at these center and practicing safe social distancing rules. SAUSD also has a Twitter account and Facebook page they use to keep in touch with families.

Recently, SAUSD also opened a helpline which operates in both English and Spanish and directs people to the required department concerning questions about schools, health, or immigration. The helpline, which can be reached at (714) 558-5800, is another way SAUSD is hoping to bridge the gap between them, their students, and their families.

Although the meal distribution was originally planned for May, following the closure of in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, the SAUSD Board recently announced that this service will be extended to May 28. In terms of the summer, Amezcua said that the district begins to receive federal and state funding then and that they will be able to continue distributing meals until the fall.

Amezcua notes that the current circumstances are unprecedented but that community in these times is more important than ever. She notes that they have collaborated more with the city council to accommodate students and enact new programs, like a Chromebook exchange program to help students have access to take their classes online.

Amezcua asks the community to contact her or the helpline if they know of a child or family that is struggling.

“All of us, not one of us, can solve the problem and not one of us can control what’s happening with the coronavirus,” said Amezcua. “It’s all about coming together as a community, that’s what it’s about.”

Newport - Mesa Unified School District

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is also offering free student lunches at various locations Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The meals are for pick-up only and each meal is limited to one student. These meals are being offered to students ages 18 and younger.

The district also began distributing breakfast meals on April 6 during the same time as the lunch distribution.

Melissa Claasen is a single mother whose children attend Newport Heights Elementary School in Newport Beach. Classen said that finding food at the store and managing meal prep during COVID-19 has been a challenge, so she decided to take her two sons to one of the food distribution centers at their elementary school.

“It was helpful, because for a while there, I was very worried that we didn’t have enough food and I couldn’t get a grocery delivery from anywhere,” said Claasen.

Claasen and her sons went to the food service a few times, receiving lunches with snack items like carrot sticks, yogurt cups and Teddy Grahams.

She said that cafeteria staff and district supervisors left the food on a table at the pick up station in the school parking lot. Then community members could easily drive into the distribution site, stop their car and quickly pick up student meals from the table.

Claasen’s two sons have been using the school lunch program since September and she said that having the meal distributions during quarantine has been a “life saver.” But since she and her children have asthma and are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, Claasen has decided to stay at home whenever possible and said she is fortunate to have friends who can help her grocery shop. She said that once they stopped attending, NMUSD also began providing hot meals as well.