D.C. Public School parents struggle to find ways to pick up free meals (Update)

By: Kelsey Carolan

During the first week of D.C. public schools beginning virtual classes, Sary Vaquero wondered how she would walk a roundtrip of 10 blocks each day, while recovering from gallbladder surgery, to pick up free meals for her three children.

Vaquero receives approximately $700 in SNAP benefits, or commonly known as food stamps, each month to feed her family. But with her children home all day, she needs to spend more money out of pocket to pay for the extra meals that her children would usually receive for free at school.

The Agriculture Department recently announced the extension of a set of nationwide waivers for the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option – two programs that give students free meals each summer in low-income areas as part of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. These programs will now be in use throughout all of D.C. until at least Dec. 31 because of the pandemic. Typically, students who receive low-cost or no-cost meals during the academic year must meet certain eligibility requirements set by the USDA.

Unlike during the summer, three breakfasts and three lunches per child can now be picked up at once so children and parents don’t have to walk to a pick-up site each day. But Vaquero still can’t figure out a way to pick up the meals without leaving her children home alone even if it is only two days per week.

“It’s getting hard to go outside to the school and get breakfast because my small daughter, she needs me, and my son, I constantly have to be next to him during his classes,” Vaquero said in a phone interview about her 10 and 8 year-old children. “When they’re done school at 3:15, I have to go and buy something from the store to get ready for the next day.”

Vaquero isn’t the only parent who relies on free breakfast and lunches in school to feed her children.

Almost 69 percent of DCPS students, more than 34,000, were eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches during the 2017-18 school year, according to the DCPS website, and all students are able to receive free breakfast through the D.C. Healthy Schools Act.

Before the pandemic hit, one in seven households in D.C. did not have equitable access to nutritious food, according to a report by D.C. Hunger Solutions, an initiative of the Food Research and Action Center that works to end hunger. With higher unemployment amid the pandemic, food insecurity in the region is predicted to increase by 48 to 60% in the next year, according to the Capital Area Food Bank, a Feeding America food bank

Most D.C. residents who face food insecurity are Black and live in Wards 7 or 8, D.C. Hunger Solutions reported.

A Ward 8 resident, Philana Hall can’t leave her four children at home — ranging from a toddler to a 13-year-old — to pick up the meals. She said in a phone interview that without a car and not wanting to risk the chance of transmitting the virus on public transportation, she has no efficient way of getting to the school.

Hall, like Vaquero, receives SNAP benefits but is still spending twice as much as she normally would since the money is only lasting her about 15 days out of each month.

“Now we just buy the essential stuff, we don’t buy a lot of stuff,” Hall said. “Sometimes, I don’t have enough food for them.”

Food insecurity doesn’t only encompass reductions in food intake, Taryn Morrissey, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in a Zoom interview.

“Food insecurity includes worrying about not having food,” Morrissey said. “As a parent, not being able to put food on the table for dinner or worried about how far your SNAP benefits or your unemployment check or wages are going to go for the next week.”

Morrissey said parents often try to shield their children from an actual reduction in food intake which can lead to negative and stressful impacts like parental depression and a weakened sense of self-efficacy.

With her son and husband both recovering from the coronavirus, DCPS parent Norma Chavez said in a phone interview that she is worried about her financial situation since she is buying more food and using food banks.

“It’s hard to use public transportation because we don’t want to get sick,” Chavez said.

Chavez said her neighbors are facing the same problems and she is trying to help them. As a Hispanic woman, she said she knows many of her neighbors are scared to apply for government assistance because of the fear of being deported along with not being able to communicate with other resources because of a language barrier.

Feeding America reported that of the families that use their food bank system, about 20% of them are Latino. They also found that Latino families are less likely to apply for SNAP benefits.

Chavez said it has been hard for her to buy nutritious food for her 13-year-old son, especially when having to spend extra money on produce at the grocery store. Because her son is in class all day and only has a 30-minute break, he doesn’t have the extra time to walk.

D.C. Hunger Solutions found that receiving free or reduced breakfast and lunches that meet nutritional guidelines reduced obesity and poor health in children. Not being able to receive those meals may contribute to more health issues along with not being able to be fully engaged in online learning, Paige Pokorney, an Anti-Hunger Program & Policy Analyst at D.C. Hunger Solutions, said in a phone interview.

“I’ve been having to buy more quick foods that are more processed,” Hall said. “They’ve been eating a lot of french fries and chicken nuggets and pizza.”

One local restaurant owner decided to take matters into his own hands when he realized students needed more support in receiving nutritious meals.

Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher started delivering free meals to the elderly in March when the pandemic began spreading throughout the D.C. area. He said in a phone interview that he started receiving calls from local schools after they were having trouble serving meals to all their students.

Now, he is setting up 80 refrigerators across the city that will be stocked with 100 meals per day, placing them near libraries and recreational centers. Partnering up with local restaurants, Bucher said with the money raised for the program, each restaurant will be paid $6 for each meal they donate.

“My rule is no bologna sandwiches and no beans and rice so everything is going to be a dignified meal,” Bucher said.

To combat food insecurity, Pokorney said that the federal government should provide more in SNAP benefits. She also suggested that DCPS implement a food delivery system and resume the Afterschool Snack Program, which allowed NSLP-eligible children who participated in afterschool activities to receive an additional snack each day.

“We don’t have money,” Chavez said. “It’s so difficult and I am so, so worried and also, he’s worried about the situation.”

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