For Meghan Gibbons, Director of School Nutrition at Valley View School District, serving kids school meals is not a job, but a passion. Amidst the challenges brought by the pandemic such as: remote feeding, socially distanced meal service, and supply chain issues, Meghan and her team have worked tirelessly to ensure every child has access to meals and can receive the nourishment they need to grow, learn, and be healthy.
For nearly two years, the pandemic has disrupted daily life, taking a toll on the wellbeing of families across the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of kids could be struggling with hunger, including 1 in 8 in Illinois.
The last 18 months have been like no other. We know that the impact of the global pandemic was different on each community. For individuals experiencing food insecurity, their world looked much different than the overworked executive who welcomed the change of pace. Working parents who were home with school aged children had an entirely different struggle “balancing it all” compared to individuals living alone who grappled with isolation. One thing that occurred for many Americans is that we developed a love for food!
Around the state of Illinois, millions of people experienced financial and food insecurity because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Illinois Commission to End Hunger seeks to alleviate the barriers to accessing social services and ensure food equity for all. Our conversation with Colleen Burns, the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s State Engagement and Policy Innovation Lead, talks about the roadmap to take us there and what the next steps are for ending hunger in Illinois.
Across Illinois, summer meal programs worked hard to fill the hunger gap created when children couldn’t access school breakfasts or lunches. There’s no doubt that the diverse challenges of the pandemic demanded creative ways to reach students facing food insecurity. While some partners tested new popular menu ideas, others collaborated with school summer enrichment programs to increase student participation. We reached out to some of our partners, and they shared their strategies and lessons learned from this summer and the previous school year.
“Food is the gateway to connections,” according to Sarah O’Donnell, CEO of the Tri-Town YMCA. “When you can sit down around a table and make memories, instead of worrying where the next meal is coming from, you invest in your child’s healthy future.” For the countless families who experienced economic hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tri-Town YMCA stepped up to the plate to offer innovative child nutrition programs, food drives, grab‘n’go services, and even vaccination clinics to reinvigorate the community and show them that they were not alone.
Summer can be the hungriest time of the year for kids who rely on school meals, but it doesn’t have to be. Last summer, as the need for meals was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, innovative flexibilities were implemented to allow organizations to serve more meals and reach families in need. This summer, programs across the country are working to continue this success and reach more kids than ever before.
Sun’s out, school’s over, and it’s time to double down on getting food to our communities! During the academic year school meals are the most reliable and nutritious source of food for at-risk students, but summer meals are also critical to curbing child hunger. Though we may be able to enjoy warmer weather and fewer responsibilities, hunger doesn’t take a vacation. Here are 5 simple things you can do to make sure your summer feeding program is reaching as many families as possible!
Mary Poole, Food Service Director at Benton School District, has been advocating for serving breakfast in the classroom for a while, but like many people in her position, she faced pushback from teachers.
She heard many concerns from the teaching staff: the classroom would get messy; there wouldn’t be time to eat during the school day; teachers wouldn’t get a break.
Are you new to child nutrition?
Do you have a specific child nutrition area of focus, but don’t know all the programs out there?
Are you trying to explain all your options to feed kids to someone on your team, and you need them to catch up, and quick?
Creativity is the name and collaboration is the game at Decatur School District. Poverty and food access were central worries for families in the Decatur community when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March. Students who thought they were leaving school only for a week to enjoy Spring break were suddenly forced to transition to online learning and be socially distant from friends and faculty. In this time of need, Aramark’s Scot Gregory and his team stepped up to the plate and immediately sprang into action to adjust the district’s meal service program. Within the week, the team was managing four drive-up sites distributing 500 to 600 meals 5 days a week.
Like communities across the country, COVID-19 devastated the Southern Illinois local economy. Families who previously never needed assistance began seeking resources to help feed their families. While struggling with the sometimes-stigmatizing experience of seeking food assistance, they also dealt with transporting food to children learning from home.
Before, during, and after the pandemic, school districts across the state use Breakfast After the Bell programs to increase access to the most important meal of the day. Ensuring students eat a healthy breakfast sets them up for success during the school day and beyond. Here are their stories:
Like many school districts in Illinois, Waukegan District 60 was concerned that its students could suffer from food insecurity because of the pandemic. Packaged meal kits are great, but not if kids can’t get to them. With transportation issues and parents’ work schedules, the district near the northern Illinois border could have struggled getting food into the bellies of kids. Even more worrying, over 500 families in the district face housing insecurity, presenting bigger barriers to meal access.
2020 has been a year like no other. The pandemic has had a profound impact on every aspect of our lives, including child hunger. This year, as many as 1 in 4 kids could go hungry, a number that has greatly increased since the onset of the coronavirus.
There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a year like no other, but the hard work of schools and community organizations to feed kids is one thing we can always count on. It is always encouraging to hear about the innovation and enthusiasm of food service professionals in the state of Illinois. We’d like to highlight their stories:
In Carbondale, Illinois, it’s not just schools providing meals for kids during the pandemic.
Over the summer, The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Illinois used their staff, budget, and a little help from No Kid Hungry to serve suppers to all interested kids in their community. This new evening meal program was established in addition to their pre-existing partnership with local school districts to serve lunches to children in need. According to Tina Carpenter, CEO of The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Illinois, early summer saw a staff stretched too thin and a budget burdened with PPE costs. The support from No Kid Hungry helped turn this around and provided the funding necessary to make suppers in Carpenter’s centers possible.
In the fairly large city of Kankakee, fifty miles south of downtown Chicago, having multiple feeding sites isn’t always enough to make sure kids have access to the food they need during the pandemic. Some sites are not easy to get to by walking or riding a bike, but those kids still need meals, whether their school is fully remote or hybrid. Kankakee School District saw a problem, and found the resources from No Kid Hungry, Headstart, and district funds to fix it.
Beardstown Community School District has faced some unique challenges because of COVID-19. One might think that a rural district in Central Illinois with 1,600 kids is fairly routine. However, the families in this district use over 22 languages! Superintendent Ron Gilbert says that with such a diverse community, communication is tricky, and always has been. But that challenge hasn’t stopped the district from providing food to its students during the pandemic.
Noble Network of Charter Schools found out on a Friday that school would be closed the next Monday for the foreseeable future. Monica Bromber-Karis, Director of Dining Services, spent the whole weekend brainstorming, planning, and implementing food distribution strategies for Noble Schools. Sure enough, meal kits were ready to go the very first Monday school was closed.
With schools out for the year and summer beginning, parents may feel challenged to keep their children engaged. Due to non-congregate feeding for summer meals sites and the uncertainty regarding the reopening of parks, children may spend more time at home.
Nubia Sanchez, Compliance Officer at Acero Charter Schools remembers waiting a couple of weeks after implementing Breakfast After the Bell in SY17-18 to hear complaints or issues with Grab ‘N’ Go to the Classroom but upon hearing hardly none thought, “this is too good to be true.”
Golder College Prep in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago went from serving 13% of their students breakfast daily with the traditional before school cafeteria model to serving nearly 67% of their students daily after implementing Breakfast in the Classroom.
“We push our students to eat healthy in a fun way so it doesn’t feel like they are pressured,” said Principal Anderson.
Perspectives Charter Schools increased breakfast participation from 55% to 85% after implementing a Grab ‘N’ Go to the Classroom with the help of teachers, principles and counselors nudging students to grab breakfast in the mornings.
While keeping its traditional cafeteria breakfast program, Elmwood Park implemented a Second Chance Breakfast program in the middle and high school in the 2017-18 school year.
“We have been doing Breakfast After the Bell since before it was hip,” chuckled Kasia Sanchez, Director of the President’s Office at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy.