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Children May Miss Meals As School Food Service Workers Fall Ill

Breakfast kits sit ready for distribution to kids in Hartford, Conn., after schools there closed in mid-March.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
Breakfast kits sit ready for distribution to kids in Hartford, Conn., after schools there closed in mid-March.

In Clark County, Nev., the nation's fifth-largest school district, a school food service worker has reportedly died of COVID-19. That death is one of around 40 recorded in the state of Nevada as of Friday afternoon.

Just a few weeks ago NPR reported on the swift efforts to continue to get meals to children and their families, as schools shut their doors in response to the spreading coronavirus. The school lunch program in typical times feeds nearly 30 million U.S. children.

Now those efforts seem to be faltering. Across the country, in Detroit, Raytown, Mo., Tonganoxie, Kan., Pasadena, Calif., Memphis, Tenn., and Kanawha County, W.Va., school districts have stopped or scaled back meal distribution to families in need, at least temporarily, as their food service workers test positive or are suspected of having coronavirus.

Houston Independent School District is relaunching its service with new safety protocols. Memphis schools haves partnered with the YMCA to resume food service there. Some districts in Louisiana and Texas are getting help from a program out of Baylor University that is mailing shelf-stable food directly to families.

In other places, districts say they're scaling back food offerings simply because they've run out of money. St. Landry Parish in rural Louisiana said they were looking for partners to keep feeding families. The $2 trillion federal coronavirus rescue package includes $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs, but it's unclear exactly when or how that will be distributed.

Ann Cooper, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, tells NPR her workers' safety was her greatest concern. "My fear is that people can get sick and then we won't be able to service the community."

She says she's divided her workers up into three teams with no crossover, limiting who is exposed to whom. Workers' temperatures are taken as they come into the kitchen, and they also are asked to take their own temperature twice a day and report it in a Google Doc. Food safety, packing and distribution rules are as stringent as possible, and the staff does a video chat with a nurse every morning.

As the crisis drags on, Cooper says she's worried about her people's mental health. "What kind of emotional toll is that going to take on people? And what happens when the first people get sick and other people have to step in?"

School lunch staff are now, essentially, first responders, she says. "And that's just not something that most people signed up for when you become a lunch lady."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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