No student hungry: Suburban school districts ensure every kid eats during coronavirus shutdown

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all Ohio schools to close by Monday, March 16, to prevent further spread of COVID-19, many school administrators saw the move coming and were prepared for the shutdowns.

But virtually every school district in the state was left wondering how they were going to make sure their students were fed. According to the Ohio County Health Rankings, 34% of students enrolled in Cuyahoga County public schools receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch through the National School Lunch Program.

With so many students relying on their schools for the day’s nutrition, many of Cleveland’s suburbs have turned to nationally funded school lunch programs, dedicated teachers and staff, and loyal volunteers to make sure Northeast Ohio’s students are adequately fed during the COVID-19 crisis and schools closure.

Hatching a plan

Beth Russell, spokeswoman for the Bedford City School District, was watching DeWine’s press conference with district superintendent Andrea Celico, administrators, and teachers when they got the news the schools would close until April 3 (DeWine has since extended the closure through at least Friday, May 1).

“After watching Gov. DeWine's initial press conference when he announced that he was closing schools in just a couple of days for three weeks, our first thoughts were: How will we switch to remote learning so quickly? And how will we feed our kids,” Russell says.

“Between 60% and 65% of our students rely on getting free or reduced breakfasts and lunches at school,” she says. “What would they do now? How could we ensure our kids were getting fed? A team went to work right away to draft a meal distribution plan.”

The district serves 3,150 students in Bedford, Bedford Heights, Walton Hills, and Oakwood Village, so it was no small feat to get everything in place. In a matter of days—by March 18—the Bedford City Schools became a G Suite for Education, as the district had switched all teaching to Google Classroom.

Additionally, the district implemented a system to get breakfast and lunch to any student age 18 and younger, regardless of whether they attend school in the district.

“We go by the honor system,” says Russell of giving meals to anyone who asks for one. “We as educators believe in caring for the whole child, and making sure they're not hungry is a big part of that.”

The meals are reimbursed through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs’ Seamless Summer Option. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, parents and their kids can pick up two days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches at one of 13 locations throughout the four cities in the district. Two buses depart from the high school, staffed with volunteers to distribute the meals to the students.

Additionally, Mt. Zion Church in Oakwood Village has been opening its food pantry to families several times a month.

Samantha Wolske, whose daughter Cora attends Central Elementary School, was concerned when she heard the schools would be closing—especially because Cora receives special attention in both her speech and math studies and is enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.

But everything has been going smoothly, Wolske says. Cora’s teachers have given her lists of the work she needs to do, and the mother-daughter team travels to the high school three times a week to pick up Cora’s meals.

“It’s pretty well organized,” says Wolske. “We just drive up, and there are signs where you need to go. They started putting it all in a box that we can take with us.”

The high school has even been giving out free books on some visits, and Cora enjoys the new routine of picking up her meals, Wolske says. “She looks forward to seeing someone she knows. It’s been a really good help, and the school has been great with us and the students.”

The effort employs 18 food service workers who work in two shifts of nine people, two bus drivers, three to four staff volunteers to travel on the school buses and deliver the meals, and three custodians working in split shifts at the high school to keep everything clean and provide access to the school.

“It’s a big operation,” Russell says. They have now incorporated no-touch delivery systems. “We used to hand the bags to the families. Now we put them in the trunk or back seat.”

<span class="content-image-text">Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, parents and their kids can pick up two days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches at one of 13 locations throughout the four cities in the Bedford City School District.</span>Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, parents and their kids can pick up two days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches at one of 13 locations throughout the four cities in the Bedford City School District.Drafting a playbook

When DeWine made the initial school closure announcement March 12, staff in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District found themselves scrambling through the week to figure out how to feed 5,052 students. The school normally provides free breakfast and lunch to all students during the school year.

“We really didn’t have a specific plan in place,” says Cathan Cavanaugh, district spokeswoman. “I can’t say we really had a playbook for something like this.”

But the district acted quickly and got the plan in place in less than a week. By March 17, the district had set up distribution centers at the board of education building, four elementary schools, Monticello Middle School, and Heights High School from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, and at Zagara’s Marketplace starting at 1:30 p.m.

“We’ve been encouraging grab-and-go to provide safe distance,” Cavanaugh says. “Be fast, grab your meals for the day, and go on your way. It’s been a good process so far.”

Like Bedford, the distributions at Heights are funded through the Seamless Summer Option, and the district provides the meals to all children 18 and younger.

“We’re not turning anyone away,” Cavanaugh says. “They come up and say they need that meal; we give it to them. We don’t ask what school they attend, it’s just given to them. No discussion.”

The district has handed out 26,919 bags, each with two meals as of Tuesday, April 7, Cavanaugh says.

“We started off a little slow in the first week,” she says. “And then by week two, word got out that, ‘Hey, we put some good meals out and we can get them for free. At this point, it’s not going to stop any time soon.”

<span class="content-image-text">All 1,781 Warrensville Heights students receive free lunch, according to superintendent Donald J. Jolly II.</span>All 1,781 Warrensville Heights students receive free lunch, according to superintendent Donald J. Jolly II.A godsend

Toni Wilkins has been cooking for her grandchildren, Sulivani Seales, age 12, and Samiyl Seales, 10, but she normally relies on Eastwood Elementary School in the Warrensville Heights School District to provide breakfast and lunch for the brothers.

With school closed, Wilkins is thrilled the district has turned three school buses into food trucks of sorts, distributing bags of breakfast and lunch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to students throughout the district.

“It’s wonderful, thank god for it,” she says. “[I thought] with school lunches and breakfasts, if they close the schools down, oh my god, what are these kids going to eat? It’s such a blessing.”

All 1,781 Warrensville Heights students receive free lunch, according to Superintendent Donald J. Jolly II. The meals are covered under the Seamless Summer Option, which normally serves lunch at the high school in the summer months.

But in this case, they must serve a greater number of students quickly, so the three buses each make three stops, Jolly says. “We go to where the kids are, then we’re able to serve more."

The Warrensville Heights School District was anticipating the shutdown and making plans, but the volunteer help in serving two bag lunches every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday has been impressive, says Matt Heinl, food service director.

“It’s been going good,” he says. “We have tons of volunteers coming in—teachers, principals, community members—all going on the buses or helping in the cafeteria.

The three buses each make three 20-minute stops to hand out bags with two days of breakfasts and lunches for each child. Between 70% and 80% of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunches, Heinl says. They have been averaging 3,000 meals each week. “We do serve a lot,” he says.

It’s taken a lot of planning and organization to make sure all the meals are ready to go on delivery days, but the system has been running smoothly. While Heinl offers juices, fresh fruit, and cereal or Pop Tarts for breakfasts, he has also been able to throw in frozen pancakes and French toast the kids can heat at home.

Lunches consist of a lunchmeat sandwich, chips, granola bar, and fresh fruit, although he substitutes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or heat-and-serve chicken sandwiches on occasion.

The commitment from the community and school staff has been impressive in ensuring every student is fed during the closures, Jolly says.

“We’ve averaged 10 to 15 staff members each day to come in and help make lunches,” he says. “Then we have another group that comes in to deliver them. It’s a seamless operation. I’m 100% happy, almost giddy, about the level of commitment they have for the students. And I’m very appreciative of that.”

Additionally, Jolly says the district has been making donations to the food bank on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, to make sure the grandparents of students and other senior citizens are fed. Last week, the food bank was able to serve 238 families with six tons of food.

“We look at it as we have children and seniors who are an integral part of the community, so we do what we can.”

The series is made possible through the support of Citizens Bank, the First Suburbs Consortium, and the First Ring Schools Collaborative.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.