Schools’ service doesn’t stop when lights go out
Second grader Yaritza Lopez carries a box full of containers of warm turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes for her family Friday in Gervais. The Gervais School District teamed up with the city to provide warm meals and school lunches for families even though school was canceled. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
An intermittent cold rain pelted the cargo truck parked Friday in front of Molalla Elementary School. From the back, Molalla River School District Food Director Antonia Etzel doled out lunches with cheesy bread sticks or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch.
Widespread power outages had canceled online classes, but the school food program went on.
The Valentine’s Day weekend ice storms knocked out electricity for more than 300,000 Oregonians, and school districts from the Portland area to south of Salem canceled school. A pandemic rules quirk, though, allowed food service to continue at districts big and small, underscoring schools’ role as a community service provider.
Schools have increasingly become de facto public safety nets, providing everything from food to health care to shelter in times of disaster.
Morgan Brickley pulled up to the Molalla food truck with her two children, ages 3 and 4. She said the lunches stretched a food budget strained by relatives staying with her because they didn’t have electricity.
“It makes me so proud of this community,” Brickley said. “Kids are stuck at home with this pandemic, and they are not forgotten. They are not in school, but they are being thought of still, constantly, by the staff.”
Molalla River’s food service was upended by the coronavirus. While students have studied from home, the district south of Portland has offered daily grab-and-go meals as well as delivering meals by bus on Wednesdays.
More than half the staff and two elementary schools lost power in the storms, but the district was back offering meals the following Wednesday.
Parent Traci Hull was without power Friday and deeply thankful the meals were still coming.
“It’s definitely helped me feel a little less stressed because I don’t have a way to make food or anything,” she said.
Offering meals during a weather closure was not possible in the past, partly because the infrastructure wasn’t there but mostly because of federal rules, according to district Business Manager Rick Gill.
Typically during the school year, schools operate under the National School Lunch Program, which does not pay for meals for children not at school. Since the pandemic struck, schools have been operating under the Summer Food Service Program. The summer rules reimburse schools for distributing meals off campus to any child up to the age of 18.
Gill said Oregon Department of Education waivers have reduced the “administrative hassle,” making it easier to feed kids. ODE administers the federal program but doesn’t make the rules.
Dustin Melton, ODE director of child nutrition programs, said it’s been “inspiring” to see schools’ pandemic response, creating new food distribution systems. Melton said federal discussions are moving toward a universal meal program more like what schools are doing now.
The North Marion School District between Salem and Portland provides students with meals seven days a week under the summer rules. It continued to offer meals while closed and after losing refrigeration last week.
“The district has a level of service to the community that is unmatched and unmanageable by any other service organization,” said school board member Bill Graupp, vice president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus.
Some school districts are forging community partnerships to deliver more service.
The Gervais School District north of Salem worked with the Gervais city government to offer hot meals last week along with the grab-and-go lunches and jugs of milk.
Second grader Yaritza Lopez, who walked up with her mother and older sister Friday, said she was just happy to get some hot food because it was a cold day.
City Councilor Diana Bartch, who was helping serve the meals, said she reached out to the district to offer hot food because the school was already a community rallying point and it has more resources and reach than the town.
Gervais Superintendent Dandy Stevens said taking on service agency roles is just part of being a school district in a small town.
“Even if we’re not engaged in our primary mission of education, it’s about the whole child,” she said. “Sometimes you have to put the learning aside and focus on what is the right thing to do.”
The city provided volunteers and food donations, while the district put its kitchens to work to pair a hot dish for whoever wanted it with the regular food bags for children.
“It feels good to bring a hot meal home,” said Maria Ramirez, after picking up food for her three children.
Zach Mintzer, an assistant principal in the Cascade School District’s Aumsville Elementary, said food programs are a key part of relationship building but he was handing out meals for a much simpler reason.
“The culture of this school is we see a need and we fill it,” he said, between passing warm sloppy joes and a Saturday breakfast through car windows to excited children.
The district resumed meals Thursday, despite no classes and many staff still without power.
Michael Vetter, food service director for North Santiam and Cascade School Districts southeast of Salem, said he had to give his staff some motivational speeches last week. Making and delivering food for students under pandemic rules has strained staff capacities around the state. The fall wildfires and now the storms raised more challenges for overworked crews.
Vetter believes in the value of food, though.
“A regular meal is getting a child to know it’s not just chaos in this world,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA