For the Los Angeles Unified School District, the closure of school campuses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic required more than just transitioning to online learning; it left a gap in feeding an entire community of vulnerable students and families.
When the pandemic hit and schools were forced to shut down in March, the district maintained the responsibility to feed LAUSD students in the safest possible form. This meant creating “Grab & Go” food centers, located across Los Angeles County, where students and community members could pick up nutritious meals while socially distancing.
In late June, LAUSD reached a milestone by serving over 40 million free meals at Grab & Go centers. In an update provided by the district on Oct. 12, Superintendent Beutner said that the program has now supplied 67 million meals.
The Grab & Go program is designed to meet the needs of students no longer receiving free meals at school. Understanding that the pandemic has inextricably linked heightened food insecurity with job and income loss, LAUSD expanded the program to supply free meals to any families or community members that need reliable meals.
“In the first couple of months of school closure, families were dealing with a lot of uncertainty, mostly because school closures were coupled with either job layoffs or parents losing hours at work,” said Elmer Roldan, who works with the Los Angeles chapter of Communities in Schools.
Roldan estimated that 60 to 70% of the families his nonprofit serves depend on the Grab & Go service for reliable meals.
The LAUSD food relief program feeds more community members than any other school-based meal program in the country, according to Superintendent Austin Beutner. Before the pandemic hit, close to 400,000 students were benefiting from LAUSDs meal plan. Though the 2020 school year is starkly different from others, LAUSD’s efforts to continue providing accessible meals to the community have only grown.
LAUSD has over 60 Grab & Go locations around Los Angeles County. The locations range from San Fernando Valley all the way down to San Pedro. They open each weekday morning from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and provide two meals per person.
The Grab & Go program requires no form of documentation, barcodes and proof of residency. This means that any person who arrives at a Grab & Go location during their operating hours will be offered free meals paid for by federal, state, county and city funds.
“Anyone who arrives looking for food, we’re assuming needs the food. And we’re going to provide it,” Beutner told the LA Times.
“The lines of people each day at our food centers are a sobering reminder of the impact the virus is having,” Beutner said. “To put it in context, 40 million is roughly the population for the entire state of California.”
Yet the Grab & Go program has not completely eased issues of food insecurity, especially among low income families. Some community members have preexisting health conditions that inhibit them from going to a Grab & Go site for fear of contracting coronavirus. Other families lack the transportation to reach these sites.
Sandy Mendoza, who works with the nonprofit Families in Schools, said some members her organization serves have benefited while others have also encountered some drawbacks with the program. “Grab and Go isn’t always convenient for working parent(s) unless there is an adult caregiver with reliable transportation,” she said.
“Some [families] did complain to us that guidelines were implemented inconsistently or wouldn’t allow them to take meals for all the people sitting in a car because staff assumed that there were more than one family in the car, etc.,” Mendoza said. “These practices did not make any sense and inconvenienced those with limited transportation.”
The consequences of COVID-19 intensified existing inequities in underserved communities, affecting more than just LAUSD’S meal program.
“This crisis is having a disproportionate impact on low income families,” Beutner said in the Oct. 12 update. “We expect the job impacts and housing insecurity due to COVID-19 to cause additional volatility in enrollment and attendance figures for some time to come.”
These expectations have proven to be true. A recent survey conducted by The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and USC shed light on poverty, homelessness, housing insecurity and digital divides present in the Los Angeles community. The survey, which oversaw 19 out of 1,386 LAUSD schools, found alarming and sobering evidence of the pandemic’s effect on low-income community members. According to the study, since March, roughly three out of four families have experienced a loss of income and food insecurity, one out of four families do not have internet access, and more than one-third of students do not have appropriate places to study in their homes.
As an outcome of this study, the school district and its partners are finding ways to support families during this time through free computers and internet, the Soles4Souls and Foot Locker program which donates shoes to students experiencing homelessness, COVID-19 tests at schools and of course– the safety net of free meals.
In the recent update Beutner also provided the school community with an update on reopening school campuses. The three phase program will require baseline tests for students and staff, a return-to-school baseline test and periodic testing for students and staff throughout the school year to reduce the number of persons with the virus who may arrive on campuses.
To support LAUSDs Grab & Go program, the charity LA Students Most in Need is taking donations to continue funding the effort.