/How Mississippi districts are feeding kids in a pandemic

How Mississippi districts are feeding kids in a pandemic

Mississippi News Nonprofit Sunny Baker, codirector of the Mississippi Farm to School Network, said that it wasn’t “Oh my godsh, how are we going to educate these children?” Before the coronavirus, schools provided a safe place for thousands of children to get a nutritious and free breakfast. This service was even more important after the pandemic. Schools were closed in spring as the virus decimated the economy and state, and many parents lost their jobs and threatened their economic future. Mississippi’s 75 percent eligibility for free or reduced-price meals means that 75 percent of Mississippi’s children live in households earning between 130 and 185% of the poverty level. The majority of children in Mississippi are dependent on the school’s free breakfast and lunch. The food supply was also affected when schools were closed abruptly. Scott Clements (state director of child nutrition for the Mississippi Department of Education), stated that Mississippi has a large number of students who rely on these meals. Governor. Governor. School nutrition departments have had to adapt to other methods to ensure that students get food in the weeks since. These options include grab-and-go, delivery at school bus stops, and drive-up exchanges. Clements stated that more than 4.65million meals were served between March and April (may figures are still not available). More than 100 schools offered grab-and go meals at 350 locations on any given day of the academic year. This does not include the additional 53 sites that were served by 14 non-profits. Schools continue to serve during summer, but the number of sites and districts changes daily as schools make decisions about where and when they will continue serving meals while keeping families and workers safe. Clements stated that while we say this all year, it is a great thing for children to eat breakfast every morning. They are better equipped to learn the day ahead of them. We like to see them have lunch, so they don’t get distracted and hungry in the afternoon. This is also true for distance learning. In some cases, schools have been forced to stop serving meals due to the coronavirus. For this reason, the West Bolivar School district stopped delivering meals for approximately a month. In an effort to reach children in rural areas, they were delivering meals along the bus route. Jackie Lloyd, president of the school board, stated that the meals were stopped immediately after a member of the food service staff was infected with the coronavirus. The West Bolivar School district served small towns like Shaw, where there was no food source other than a Dollar General and two gas stations. They had to find a way to keep the kids fed. “When you go to Dollar General, the shelves are empty. There is a whole community trying to get the little amount of food that is available. It’s difficult for them, especially our seniors, to survive and get the adequate nutrition they need during these times,” Cora Jackson, a Shaw native, said. The nonprofit Delta Hands for Hope helped Shaw. “Delta Hands for Hope is a pillar of Shaw for the past five- to six years. Chiquikta Fountain is the sole employee and executive director of Delta Hands for Hope. “Because our focus on youth, there’s not way that I can’t do something for these kids,” she said. Jackson and her husband, as well as a group of students, showed up at Delta Hands for Hope to help assemble meals from Day One. The effort was made possible by donations of money and meals boxes. Delta Hands for Hope provides lunch for 65 children three days a semaine. It was a program that provided educational resources for children after school before the pandemic. They are still not able reach Shaw’s West Bolivar School District children despite all their efforts. Although the pandemic has made it clear that there is a need for reliable and nutritious food sources, food insecurity is not a new problem. Food pantries can be an emergency solution to this huge problem. They are a band-aid. “All of this hunger talk and hunger work to my mind is going to be futile if we don’t talk about changing the system where hunger exists,” Baker, co-director of Mississippi Farm to School Network said. The system that causes hunger is based on long-held economic policies which don’t encourage the selling or buying of locally grown produce. According to a report by the Mississippi Food Policy Council, Mississippi’s agricultural focus on export commodities seems to have caused state officials and educational institutions to overlook the possibility of creating new economic activity and farm and business ownership through local food. According to the same report, Mississippi imports almost 90 percent of its food while exporting large quantities of commodity crops like soybeans. “We have an incredibly rich soil. The Mississippi Delta has the most fertile soil in the country. We don’t grow food there. Baker stated that we are growing commodities crops, which is food that is not available to the public. We don’t support small-scale farmers. There are many laws and policies that hinder small farmers from doing the things they need to do. This is one reason Mississippi is known for hunger. This is not to say that you have to be hungry all the time. It can mean not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or not being able access affordable and healthy food. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today There are many people in this country who are not starving, as we see on television. It’s not the same as starvation. Access to food can look completely different from what you think. Fountain stated that you may have even cooked food from a gas station or restaurant, but don’t know the source. Eddye Johnson, the food service director at Coahoma County Schools District, is well aware of this problem. It would be difficult for students to get healthy food. Her concerns were not about the availability of healthy food, but the difficulty students had access to. Many of these kids can’t cook so they may be starving or eating Ramen noodles until their parents return. This is something I think about every now and again. Johnson stated that Johnson tries to ensure each child receives a nutritious meal and a decent meal. The department of education partnered with the Mississippi Department of Human Services on a state-level to provide additional funding for families. In March, the federal government passed the Pandemic EBT Program (Patent EBT Program) as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This gives the U.S. secretary of agriculture the authority to approve state plans for temporary assistance in order to ensure that children have nutritious meals even during this national emergency. Mississippi is one of 41 approved states. The program provides assistance to 340,980 students at a cost of $90 millions, or $5.40 per student each day. Retroactive funding means that it covers the period from March 19, when schools were closed, to May 22, when they reopened. Food distribution has been affected by the pandemic. Some districts have reduced the number of days they work from five to one or two per week in order to ensure the safety of their employees and the larger communities they serve. Some cases have gallons of milk per child, which means that families don’t need to return repeatedly or increase exposure. Clements stated that before the virus, some districts ordered large quantities of canned strawberries or peaches. Now they are distributed in single-serve cups. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today It’s quite different from having 800 children pass through a serving station where you have to constantly be replenished from the kitchen, Clements, state nutrition director, stated. The meals were distributed at 12 locations in the city during the school year, even though the numbers are smaller. The district initially served meals Monday through Friday. However, department officials decided that it was safer to limit the number of meals to two days to ensure safety for everyone. Marc Rowe, the school nutrition director in the district, said that safety is always a concern. “It’s always challenging to ensure that we all practice social distancing” and wear all our protective equipment. JPS uses a drive-up approach, where parents pull up at the site and workers give them bagged meals. This allows families to have enough food for the week, but not have to come to school every day. The second-largest school district in the state serves approximately 19,000 lunches per day and 10,000 breakfasts each school year. Rowe stated, “We know that there is a significant need for students to have breakfast and lunch even though it’s not in a traditional school setting.” Rowe stated that the district had served approximately 125,000 meals since mid-March, when the governor closed schools. For its summer feeding program, the district resumed Monday-Friday service from June 1 through June 10. Nearly 1,200 students are served by the Coahoma County Schools District. They delivered 1,200 breakfasts and 1,200 lunches each day Monday through Friday. To prepare for the summer feeding program, the district stopped delivering meals two weeks ago. All districts face challenges in maintaining employee safety, but some districts find it more difficult to reach as many students and their summer feeding program. Wilma McIntosh is the Clarksdale Municipal Schools District’s food service director. She said that the stigma surrounding the virus and the rural areas where the district serves make it difficult for students to get in touch with her. “Even though we have an advertisement and encourage everyone to go, some people don’t want to come. McIntosh stated that they may not have transportation or be afraid of going out. Clarksdale Municipal Schools, Coahoma’s neighboring district, offered grab-and-go meals for five days per week, including breakfast and lunch. McIntosh stated that over 500 students were served meals each day at three different sites. However, this is not enough to feed nearly all the 3,000 students living in the district. The district typically serves 525,000 meals annually. The district introduced “Wildcat on Wheels”, which busses meals to children in the area. McIntosh stated that the operation was stopped quickly due to concerns about safety for employees and the community. The issue at Olive Branch Food Pantry was not transportation, unlike schools. It is made up of more than 20 churches and other organizations. Michele McCrory, the director, stated that their first problem was finding volunteers. They had to rely on older people as their usual volunteers. She said that they were uncomfortable being around other people despite social distancing. The pantry was closed in April. It was difficult for us to make this decision. Many pantries were opened during the COVID-19 panic. McCrory stated that there are a few board members who are elderly or care for the elderly, so they could not get around people. In May, the pantry was reopened as a drive-thru operation. Each week, they distribute 60 boxes to families. Non-profits and community groups also helped to carry the burden by providing financial relief and helping with meal distribution. Tallahatchie County’s Tutwiler community education center stepped in to provide meals when the local school district was unable. The organization was founded in order to help the community in times when it needed it most, even before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Melanie Powell, the executive director of the center said that the center was able to secure a donation in order to purchase 10,000 food vouchers for people who lost their food when the storm struck earlier this year. Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today The demand for food is increasing, so this time it’s no different. They now distribute more than 250 food boxes each week. Powell predicts that the center will become a food bank at this rate. The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi has received more than $150,000 through its FEED fund to provide food boxes and meals to food pantries, churches and community organizations as well as food pantries. To support the foundation’s efforts, the Walton Family Foundation and the Maddox Foundation of Hernando donated over $100,000. Although the pandemic has made it difficult for people to get basic food, it does not mean that everyone is feeling despair. Fountain stated, “I don’t want to continue portraying our community as if we don’t still have people with pride in this place because of something like that.” People are resilient. They are resilient and find ways to bounce back. Even in times of chaos, I meet people who smile and are content with their lives. They are grateful to be here, even amid all the chaos.” To support this work and continue important work such as this one, you can make a recurring donation to our Spring Member Drive today. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. 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