Sign up to receive a newsletter for The Great Divide, an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at email@example.com with story ideas and tips.
The race against the clock starts at 10:50 a.m., when the second-grade Zoom class goes on a lunch break.
Rebecca Wood, a single mother who doesn’t have a car, and her daughter, Charlie, have precisely 40 minutes to walk to Charlie’s school in Revere, wait in line, pick up food for the next few days, and rush home to scarf down the meal — usually nachos, pizza, or chicken nuggets, with carrots and fruit — before class starts again. Charlie is sometimes late to log back on, but it’s the only way the family can get the crucial free meals, which are distributed from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday.
“It feels like a nightmare,” Wood said. “The expectations are a little bit ridiculous.”
At a time of growing poverty and hunger, many families are struggling to access essential free school meals because of inconvenient pickup times that don’t coincide with class breaks. Long a lifeline for low-income children to receive breakfasts and lunches, and learn without the distraction of an empty stomach, free-meal distribution has been a top concern since public schools closed for in-person learning last March.
Massachusetts Parents United, an advocacy group, has heard complaints from families across the state about the logistical difficulty of getting school meals during the short breaks between Zoom classes. Its president, Keri Rodrigues, said districts should redirect school buses to deliver food either to families’ homes or to places that are closer than schools, such as school bus stops.
School districts should be asking families, “‘How can we make this easier for you?’” Rodrigues said. “The last thing that families need right now is another errand or another hoop to jump through — that’s not helpful.”
Prior to the pandemic, close to half the state’s nearly 1 million public-school students were enrolled in the free or reduced meal program, which covers families of four earning less than $48,500 annually. When the pandemic hit, schools shifted their meals from cafeterias to outdoor grab-and-go sites. Some provide multiple days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches, while others require daily trips. Provisions vary, but typically include cereal, cold sandwiches, frozen or hot meals to be reheated, fruit, vegetables, and milk.
Amid statewide school shutdowns last spring, school meal participation fell to half the usual level. In an effort to reach more hungry kids, the state now allows any family with children to pick up free school meals at any site — even in another city or town — without needing identification or registration.
This may have helped — about 20 percent of food-insecure families said they received food assistance from free school meals in October, nearly double the proportion in September. But at a time when child hunger is on the rise, many low-income families still face obstacles to receiving the food because they lack transportation and child care.
Families with children experiencing food insecurity — meaning they lack the means for reliable nutrition — have doubled across the state, affecting one in five households with children in October, according to census data. Food insecurity is even more common among Black and Latino families with kids.
For Wood, in Revere, missing a day of school meal pickups means she may have to forgo medicine for her asthma to be able to afford food.
“The school lunches are so hugely important,” Wood said. She just wishes the school would extend the pickup hours so she could go after her daughter’s class ends.
Revere considered doing a later pickup, but decided against it because some children who rely on those meals would “go hungry all day waiting for the pickup to open,” said Superintendent Dianne Kelly. The food-service staff provide three to four breakfasts and lunches twice a week to minimize families’ trips. School staff also deliver meals to remote areas.
The system is working for many families, Kelly said. This fall, Revere served 22,373 meals per week, on average, almost four times as many as in the spring.
“It’s not perfect — it never will be,” she said. “Which is why we work out accommodations for those who need them.”
Facing scheduling obstacles, some families have given up trying to access school meals.
In Lowell, Kristin Hatch had to quit her job working with adults with intellectual disabilities to help her daughter, a kindergartner, with remote learning. The class has a lunch break from 10:15 a.m. to noon, but the lunch pickup is from noon to 1:30 p.m. It takes about 10 minutes to walk to the school. Her car has a problem she can’t afford to have fixed.
“It’s kind of impossible, since the break times don’t overlap,” Hatch said. “She’s only on [Zoom class] for less than three hours a day, so every minute of that is pretty important. We don’t want to miss 10, 15, 20 minutes to go pick up lunch.”
Hatch has only made it a few times to pick up the meals, which included turkey wraps, Cinnamon Toast Crunch bars, Cheerios, yogurt, dried cranberries, and cucumbers. Hatch has been able to make do with food stamps, but said the roughly $300 she gets monthly for groceries is tough to stretch for three meals a day for two people.
Lowell Public Schools said its 10 meal sites have staggered pickup times to give families flexibility. Anyone struggling can contact their school, which will “devise solutions for ensuring the needs are met,” said spokesman Jeffrey Pickette.
But offering flexibility isn’t easy for districts, since many school nutrition budgets are facing hardship, as the federal government reimburses schools for each meal served and those numbers are down, said Erin McAleer, president of Project Bread, based in Massachusetts. That may affect districts’ ability to staff longer hours for distribution sites.
Project Bread urged families to contact its hot line, which can connect them to food aid.
Some parents, McAleer said, may not realize the state now has 920 meal-distribution sites at schools and community centers that are open to any family with children, regardless of where they go to school.
And a number of districts have found ways to offer convenience. In Salem, food sites allow for pickups after school, McAleer said, and many families who visit are from neighboring Peabody.
In Cambridge, schools made sure all remote-learning schedules gave students a full hour for lunch that coincided with distribution times to accommodate those picking up free meals, said Alanna Mallon, vice mayor and a school meal advocate. The city also expanded the number of distribution sites to 15. The schools are serving twice as many students as they did in the spring.
“Schools absolutely have a responsibility to ensure the kids sitting in front of teachers have proper nutrition and have enough to eat,” Mallon said. But they also need adequate funding to do it properly, she said.
To Hatch, it seems other families in Lowell are struggling too. On the school district’s Facebook page, several parents have raised concerns about the timing of meal distribution.
After the kindergartners’ lunch break, Hatch said, some of her daughter’s classmates return to the online class complaining of hunger, and saying they didn’t eat. It’s unclear if that’s because they don’t have food.
Parents have formed a volunteer group to deliver free meals to families without transportation, but they struggle to meet the needs, said volunteer Julia Shaw. The comments on Facebook from parents of hungry kids keep coming.
“The volunteer system is great but it’s clearly not helping everybody,” Shaw said. “It’s just making a small dent.”
Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline can be reached at 1-800-645-8333 and its website, www.projectbread.org/covid19, includes a map of Massachusetts food distribution sites.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.