December 4, 2023


education gives you strength

An Oregon school district’s unique approaches to keeping students fed

BEAVERTON, Ore. (KOIN) — Lunchtime looks a lot different for students in Beaverton, Oregon, since the coronavirus pandemic began and students started learning online. For some, the cafeteria line is replaced with pickup at the curb.

“How many, guys?” asks Eva Erickson, as a family arrives to pick up the free meals. “Do you want cheese or pepperoni pizza?”

Erickson used to serve 500 students on a normal day. Now, that’s 100 — or 150 — whose parents drive by Vose Elementary. Erickson runs the kitchen there and works to make sure breakfasts and lunches are nutritious and delicious — and get into the hands of children who need them.

“That could be the only meals they’re getting,” Erickson said.

Others, like Sara Bernard, can still use the help. She lives a quarter-mile away from Vose Elementary and brought her son and daughter to help pick up the food.

“It’s helping us a lot right now, financially,” Bernard said, adding that her family comes to help supplement their meals with the free lunches.

Overcoming challenges

Beaverton School District is the third-largest in Oregon, and just over 35% of its 41,215 students qualify for free and reduced lunches. Because of the pandemic, those students most in need can no longer eat on campus — and the district stepped up to the challenge to still provide them meals.

Charity Ralls, the administrator of nutrition services for the district, said they started by taking that challenge week by week.

Food service workers pass out meals to students in Beaverton, Oregon (KOIN Photo)
Food service workers pass out meals to students in Beaverton, Oregon (KOIN Photo)

“It was very difficult,” Ralls said. “There was one day where all my superviser staff had to sit and figure out, ‘What are we going to feed kids? How are we going to do it? Where are we going to do it?’”

They started by serving meals from just a few of the 52 schools, then added buses to take meals to other areas like apartments as well as home deliveries for some families. They also have meal pickup days only a few days a week and provide extra meals during that time, so families don’t have to come every day. That helped address one of the challenges for those living farther from schools who may not be able to drive for consistent meal pickups, but the options can be more expensive.

On Sept. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended a series of waivers that allow programs that provide meals over the summer to continue through the end of the year. Ralls said that helped the district pay for the food, but there’s still uncertainty about what will happen when that expires. There’s also a months-long delay in getting reimbursements from the government.

Lastly, because fewer students have come out than normally would, that can put the funding in jeopardy.

“I think a lot of people have the idea, ‘That’s not for us. That’s for someone else,’” Ralls said. “We definitely saw a decline in the number of people we were able to serve, or who were coming out for meals, so we’re really trying to reach everyone to come get a meal beccause that’s how our programs are reimbursed and that’s how we get funding is from meals served. So if people don’t come get served, that’s less money, then we’re less able to reach the kids who really need it.”

Ralls said about 40% of the 16,000 students the district normally provides lunch to pay for their meals, and she encouraged those students’ families to still come out.

“We’d love for them to come help support the other students, but we’re less likely to see them,” she said.

Still, the district plans to expand the number of schools where it’s serving meals — from about 20 at the end of last school year to more than 30 this year.

Preparing their plates

The biggest uncertainty, when it comes to food this year, is how many children the district will be able to reach, Ralls said. Food workers like Erickson think about that, too, and want to make sure students don’t get left out.

She also thinks about one other thing as she plans the meals: “I think, what do they really want?”

She helps prepare breakfasts and sometimes double lunches to cover for a day where distribution won’t happen. Parents are given instructions about the best way to store and heat up food, and are given a mix of shelf-stable, cold and freezer items, so they have space for everything in their refrigerators.

Erickson tucks two milks into a bag, and considers what vegetables and fruit to include each day — “Could be a banana, could be oranges, could be blueberries,” she muses.

“Lots of options, lots of options,” she says.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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