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Schools Ramp up Food Distribution but Some Are Turned Away

People standing behind bagged meals in a cafeteria
Meals are being distributed at schools across Virginia. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM)

*This story was reported by Megan Pauly and Ian Stewart.

School districts across the Commonwealth are setting up free meal distribution, so kids can still get breakfast and lunch while classrooms are shut down. 

Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools in Virginia to close for at least two weeks starting Monday. This is part of a number of efforts by the state to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease. 

One concern for school districts and families has been ensuring students still get access to free and reduced-cost meals. But there are some restrictions and at some sites, turnout has been low.

Districts Create Meal Drive-Throughs, Community Drop Off Sites

Chesterfield schools have set up drive-throughs, sort of like what you’d see at a fast food restaurant. Parents or guardians are handed snacks and food by cafeteria workers while going through the empty bus loop, or they can park and walk up. 

Sherry Southall grabbed breakfast and lunch Monday for her granddaughter, Zoe Robinson, at A.M. Davis Elementary.  

“It’ll help her mom because her mom has to work from home and she won’t have time to really do the lunch, and all of that,” Southall said. 

About 20 schools across Richmond Public Schools have opened up for families to walk in and pick up meals. Pick up times are limited to about three hours every morning. 

When VPM News stopped by Greene Elementary Monday morning, turnout was fairly low. 

Jackie Jimenez, who was volunteering, only saw about ten families by mid-morning. 

“I don’t know if the word has gotten out, or there’s lack of transportation, we’re not sure,” she said. “We’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

Other schools, like Oak Grove Elementary, saw a higher turnout. Some teachers also took meals directly to families in Hillside Court. 

On Tuesday evening, Superintendent Jason Kamras announced that, starting Wednesday morning, the district will be delivering meals directly to select communities, with new morning drop off sites at some apartment communities, public housing agencies, and recreation centers. Chesterfield is bringing meals to some apartment complexes and a mobile home community.

Federal Restrictions Difficult For Some Families

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates free school meal programs. According to the agency’s guidelines, parents or guardians must have their kids with them in order to pick up free meals.

Both Chesterfield and Henrico counties are following this guidance. On Monday, VPM reporter Ian Stewart saw a Chesterfield County staff member refuse to give meals to a parent they knew, because they didn’t have kids with them. 

These policies requiring children to be present for meal pick-ups is a burden and a health risk for some families.

Richmond mom Jennifer Steele says she was turned away at Boushall Middle School, because her children weren’t in the car with her. Steele’s daughter has asthma and other health issues. 

 “We’re not comfortable bringing the children out right now, [and the school] refused us services,” Steele said.

Later on, Steele went to a food distribution site at Huguenot High School where they gave her meals. 

“So we came here hoping we wouldn’t run into the same problem and they were so sweet, they gave us enough food for two days per child,” she said.

The USDA says the agency is in discussions about loosening these restrictions. 

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sunny Perdue said: “Local school nutrition professionals know how best to feed their children, and we are working with them and their partners to give greater flexibilities and waive restrictions. It has never been more important that we continue to fulfill our motto to ‘do right and feed everyone.’” 

Woman behind tray of bagged meals in parking lot
Chesterfield County Schools is operating "drive-through" meal distribution sites. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM)

Transcript of Conversation with Megan Pauly and Ian Stewart

PAULY: You’re listening to 88.9 VPM News. Megan Pauly here, education reporter for VPM News. I’m here today with Chesterfield County reporter Ian Stewart to talk about how local public schools are distributing meals to families while schools are closed due to the coronavirus crisis. Hey Ian.

STEWART: Hey Megan.

PAULY: Ian, I understand Chesterfield has what they’re calling a kiosk approach to food distribution. Can you explain what that was like?

STEWART: Sure Megan. Schools have set up drive throughs, sort of like what you'd see at a fast food restaurant. Parents or guardians drive up through the empty bus loop and are handed sacks of food by cafeteria workers.

Or people can park and walk up, like Sherry Southall did at A.M. Davis Elementary.

SOUTHALL: “This is Zoe Robinson. This is my granddaughter. She’s in Pre-K her at A.M. Davis.” 

Southall came to pick up both breakfast and lunch Monday. 

SOUTHALL: “It’ll help her mom because her mom has to work from home and she won’t have time, to really do the lunch and all of that.”

STEWART: The program started Monday, from 11 to Noon, and is available at some off-site locations. School officials said they handed out 2,000 meals across the district the first day. So Megan, what’s been Richmond Public Schools’ approach so far?

PAULY: So, they’ve opened up the cafeterias of about 20 schools across the district for families to walk in and pick up meals. And right now, they have limited hours of about 3 hours every morning.

Turnout wasn’t great when I stopped by a few schools mid-morning Monday. Jackie Jimenez, a volunteer at Greene Elementary only saw about 10 families.

JIMENEZ: “I don’t know if the word has gotten out, or there’s lack of transportation, we’re not sure. We’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

PAULY: But, Oak Grove Elementary there seemed to be a pretty good turnout. And a group of teachers there had taken some meals directly to families in Hillside Court as well.

STEWART: Megan, you’ve heard of other creative ways districts are getting food to families, right?

PAULY: Yeah, that’s right. Superintendent Jason Kamras just announced that, starting today, they’ll be delivering meals directly to some communities, with new drop off sites at some apartment communities, public housing agencies, and rec centers. 

One pastor I talked to, Jonathan Bowell, who’s helping with food distribution this week, really likes the idea of districts using their bus system to drop off food along their routes. 

BOWELL: “If we could coordinate that, I think that would be stellar. Because not everybody has viable transportation, especially when they’ve got a whole handful of kids back in the house.” 

PAULY: Henrico County Public Schools has indicated this is something they’d like to do. Roanoke schools are already doing this, using district busses to deliver meals each weekday while schools are closed. 

STEWART: There are federal restrictions when it comes to distributing food. For example, Chesterfield County is following the USDA guidance that parents or guardians who pick up meals are supposed to have their kids with them. At one school Monday I saw cafeteria staff turn someone away, even though they knew the parent. Is that something you’ve seen as well Megan?

PAULY: Yep, that is. That’s a requirement that Henrico County Public Schools has publicized as well. Richmond Public Schools hasn’t announced they’re enforcing this federal guidance. 

I talked to one Richmond mom, Jennifer Steele, who didn’t have her kids with her when picking up meals Monday because her daughter has asthma and other health issues.

She was turned away at Boushall Middle School, So she went to Huguenot High School where they gave her food. 

STEELE: “Because we didn’t bring the children - because we’re not comfortable bringing the children out right now - they refused us services. So we came here hoping we wouldn’t run into the same problem and they were so sweet, they gave us enough food for two days per child.” 

STEWART: The state Department of Education says “there is a discussion about additional flexibility” that would loosen these federal restrictions, and VPM confirmed this with the USDA. 

We’re also looking into whether school districts could get flexibility to extend meal distribution to adults as well as kids. 

PAULY: Thanks Ian. Ian Stewart is our reporter for Chesterfield County.

STEWART: Sure thing, Megan. 

PAULY: This is a fluid situation, so please make sure to check on your district’s website and social media for information that’s changing day to day.  I’m Megan Pauly, thanks for listening to VPM News.