By Erik Ortiz on March 10, 2020

Over the next two weeks, 23,000 students in the Northshore School District in suburban Seattle are learning from home in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak gripping Washington state and rippling across the country.

But with students' daily routines thrown for a loop, another immediate challenge has surfaced for school officials: How do you make sure every child has access to lunch?

"Students can't learn properly if they're not fed," Juliana Fisher, the district's food services and nutrition director, said. "There are some students whose food at school is the one or two meals they're getting that day. This situation is really highlighting how critical school meals are."

More than 3,000 students in the Northshore district qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of their families' incomes, among the more than 20 million students nationwide who benefit from federal assistance programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fisher said there was a slight bump in enrollment in her district last year during the federal government shutdown.

Now, with school closings spread across the country, officials are having to find creative ways to ensure students are getting access to the food they need, especially in low-income or less affluent districts.

"Everybody is really concerned about the situation," said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit focused on eliminating poverty-related hunger. "This is unique in that it's unclear how long schools are going to be closed for."

The Northshore district said it is closing schools for 14 days — the maximum incubation period for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to appear after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. District officials made the decision to temporarily close as a precaution to possible exposure, an increase in student absences and concerns for the well-being of older teachers and staff.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Elsewhere in the Seattle region, some schools are holding online classes for students through April. In California, schools have been closing for deep cleanings as a precaution, and in the Bay Area, some are closing indefinitely because of potential or direct coronavirus exposure. In suburban Philadelphia, one school is closing for a week after a student's family member tested positive for COVID-19. And in the New York and New Jersey area, several schools are closing for at least a day and up to a week because of the outbreak and potential exposure.

"Needy students live in all communities," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals. She added that there remain "many unknowns and complex considerations that vary from one community to the next."

To help make it easier for states to operate their school meals programs during the coronavirus outbreak, the USDA is accepting waiver requests — so far approved for Washington state and California — that will allow students to get their meals from a designated site, such as their local school or another off-campus location, then take it home.

Normally, students who participate in free or reduced-price meals can't take their meals to go, but concerns over coronavirus spread in confined spaces have led officials to reevaluate. The waivers run through June 30.

"This is a first step that gives schools in many low-income communities the option to continue some form of meal service during coronavirus school closures," Pratt-Heavner said. But, she added, the waiver only applies to places that run school meals programs over the summer, where at least 50 percent of children must also qualify for free or subsidized meals during the school year.

The USDA doesn't have the authority to install a blanket nationwide waiver, so each state must apply on its own.

The agency reimburses schools and other participating sponsors, such as nonprofits and faith-based organizations, for each meal given to qualifying students. But USDA officials have acknowledged that the stringent requirements for participation in the program can leave little room to be flexible.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said during a conference Monday with members of the School Nutrition Association that his agency will work quickly to approve waivers.

"This is not the speed of the government that you're used to," he said, adding, "If schools are closed, we are going to do our very best to make sure kids are fed."

FitzSimons said it would be helpful for the USDA to go further, like in times of natural disasters or emergencies that also force school closings. One possibility, she said, is allowing schools that know they're going to be closed for a certain number of days to allow students to stock up on enough meals at once so they don't have to worry about venturing out.

Claire Lane, the director of the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition, a Washington state nonprofit, said her state has another request to the USDA that, if approved, would waive the lower income eligibility requirements so that more students have the opportunity to be fed and perishable food doesn't go to waste. About 1.1 million children in the state receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Lane said another option would be to allow school districts that decide to close to distribute their food to local food banks so that all families can have access to meals. Such a move, however, generally requires a presidential declaration.

At the Northshore district, all students — no matter their eligibility — are being offered lunches thanks to the help of community groups, Fisher said. It's unclear how many students will take advantage of the meals, but bus drivers are also helping deliver meals for students. The school district learned the importance of being prepared, particularly after last winter's snowstorms closed schools.

"With so much going on, this isn't a time when kids should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from," Fisher added.