‘The most nutritious meal they’ll get’: How Mississippi districts are feeding kids in a pandemic

By Kayleigh Skinner, Aallyah Wright and Kelsey Davis Betz
June 10, 2020

When schools first closed because of the pandemic, the most pressing issue for many districts wasn’t figuring out how to continue education.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh my gosh how are we going to teach these kids?’ It was, ‘Oh my gosh these kids are going to starve without these meals,’” said Sunny Baker, co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network.

Before coronavirus, schools were a dependable place for thousands of children to receive a free and nutritious breakfast and lunch. The pandemic made this service even more crucial, as school buildings closed this spring and the virus wreaked havoc on the state and the nation’s economy, putting many parents’ jobs and economic futures in peril.

In Mississippi, 75 percent of children qualify for free or reduced meals, which means they live in households with income levels between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line. Because of this, the majority of children are dependent on the free breakfast and lunch they get at school everyday. When schools abruptly closed, so did that food supply.

“We just have such a large population in Mississippi of students who depend on those meals,” said Scott Clements, state director of child nutrition at the Mississippi Department of Education. “That breakfast and that lunch is the most nutritious meal they’ll get and in some cases, the only meal they’ll get during the course of the day.”

Gov. Tate Reeves made the decision to close school buildings and switch to distance learning on March 19, which means most school districts sprung into action immediately upon their return from spring break.

In the weeks since, school nutrition departments have had to pivot to alternative methods to ensure students receive food, whether it be a grab-and-go format, school bus door stop delivery, or drive-up exchanges.

More than 4.65 million meals have been served from mid-March through April (May figures are not available yet), Clements said. On any given day during the academic year, more than 100 school districts offered grab-and-go meals at more than 350 sites, not counting the 14 nonprofits that served meals at an additional 53 sites. Schools are still serving during the summer; the number of districts and sites change daily, as schools are constantly making decisions about which locations and days of the week to continue serving while also keeping workers and families safe.

“We say that all the time during the course of the school year, we really love to see a child eat breakfast in the morning because they’re better prepared to learn that day,” Clements said. “We like to see them eat lunch because they’re not going to be hungry and distracted in the afternoon. The same goes for right now — we’re trying to do distance learning and I think it’s important to make sure the nutrition is right so that they are healthy and even though (learning) shifted to home, they’re still able to learn.”

In some cases, local school districts have stopped serving meals because of the coronavirus. The West Bolivar School District, for example, paused delivery for about a month for this reason. They were delivering meals to students along the bus route in an effort to reach kids in the most rural areas of the county. But when one of the food service staff contracted the coronavirus, the meal provisions had to stop immediately, said Jackie Lloyd, school board president.

Small towns that West Bolivar School District served like Shaw — where the only sources of food are one restaurant, two gas stations, and a Dollar General — were suddenly left to figure out how to bridge the gap of keeping kids fed.

“You go to [Dollar General] one day, the shelves are just bare. It’s a whole community of people trying to get the small amount that’s available. So it’s very hard for them, especially our elderly, to be able to survive and get adequate nutrition that they need during this time,” said Cora Jackson, who was born and raised in Shaw.

In Shaw’s case, the nonprofit Delta Hands for Hope stepped in.

“Delta Hands for Hope has been a pillar in Shaw for the past five to six years. Because our focus is on youth, there’s no way that I could not do something for these children,” said Chiquikta Fountain, executive director and sole employee of Delta Hands for Hope.

From Day One volunteers like Jackson, her husband, and a group of students showed up to assemble meals. Donors contributed money and meal boxes toward the effort. Delta Hands for Hope, which before the pandemic provided children with educational resources after school, now serves lunch to around 65 kids three days a week. Even with these efforts, they’re still not able to reach all of the children in Shaw who are enrolled in West Bolivar School District.

While the need for a reliable, nutritious food source has become a glaring issue during the time of this pandemic, the problem of food insecurity is not new.

“Food pantries are an emergency solution to a huge problem here. They’re a Band-Aid. All of this hunger talk and hunger work to me is going to be for naught if we’re not talking about changing the system in which hunger exists,” Baker, the co-director of Mississippi Farm to School Network, said.

That system in which hunger exists hinges on long-held economic policies that don’t promote the buying and selling of locally grown produce.

Mississippi’s agricultural “focus on export commodities appears to have led state officials, and educational institutions, to overlook the potential for creating new economic activity — and farm and food business ownership — through local foods,” states a report produced for the Mississippi Food Policy Council.

The same report estimates that Mississippi imports nearly 90 percent of its food, while exporting on a large scale commodity crops that have to be processed, like soybeans.

“We have this incredibly rich soil. The Mississippi Delta is the richest soil in the country. And we’re not growing food there. We’re growing commodity crops — stuff that people can’t eat,” Baker said. “We’re not supporting small scale farmers. In fact, there are many policies and legislation that prevent small farmers from doing what they need to do.”

This is just one of the factors contributing to what is commonly referred to as hunger in Mississippi. In this sense, hunger doesn’t necessarily mean starving to death. It means not knowing where the next meal will come from or not being able to access healthy, affordable food.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Food is prepared at Delta Hands for Hope in Shaw, Miss., Friday, May 27, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“There are people here who may not be starving like we see on TV where you have children who are malnourished. Starvation looks a different way. Having access to food looks totally different than what you think it does … There’s food, but it’s processed food. You may even have cooked food (from a gas station or restaurant), but you don’t know where that came from,” Fountain said.

Eddye Johnson, food service director in the Coahoma County School District, is also well aware of this problem. She knew it would be hard for students to get a nutritious meal — her concerns stemmed from the lack of healthy meals students eat rather than access to the food itself.

“A lot of these children can’t go in there and cook, so they might be hungry or eating (Ramen) noodles up until their parents come home. Every now and then I think about that. I try to do my best to make sure I do all I can to make sure each child gets a decent meal and something nutritious,” Johnson said.

On a statewide level, the department of education worked with the Mississippi Department of Human Services to secure additional funding for families. The Pandemic EBT Program (P-EBT) was passed by the federal government in March as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and gives the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture the authority to approve statewide plans for temporary assistance to ensure that “children continue to have access to nutritious meals despite this national emergency.”

To date, 41 states have been approved, Mississippi included. The program serves 340,980 students to the tune of $90 million, or about $5.40 per student per day. The funding is retroactive, meaning it would cover the time from the date schools closed due to the pandemic (March 19) through the end of the school year (May 22).

The pandemic has also changed the way food is distributed. Ensuring the safety of employees and the greater communities they serve has led some districts to go from five days a week to one or two.

Cartons of milk for each child in some cases are now gallons, so families don’t have to come back repeatedly and increase contact and exposure. Before the virus, districts may have ordered large tins of canned peaches or strawberries; now they’re distributed in single-serve cups, Clements said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

One of the boxes of food that is distributed at the Tutwiler Community Center. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“It’s a very different process from having 800 kids come through a serving line where you’re constantly being backfilled from the kitchen,” Clements, the state nutrition director, said. “Even though the numbers may be smaller, it’s tough to feed say, 400 kids in a serving line when you’ve got to bag up everything individually, have everything ready, keep it hot or cold as the case may be, outside of the kitchen.”

In the Jackson Public School District, meals were served at 12 sites across the city on Mondays and Wednesdays during the school year. Initially the district was serving Monday through Friday, but department officials decided it was best to stick to two days for the safety of everyone involved.

“Of course maintaining safety is always a concern,” said Marc Rowe, school nutrition director at the district. “It’s always a challenge to make sure that we’re all practicing social distancing and wearing all of our protective equipment.”

JPS is using a drive-up method, where parents pull up to the sites and workers hand them the bagged meals — two on Mondays and three on Wednesdays, so families have food for the week but don’t have to come by daily.

The state’s second largest school district typically serves about 19,000 lunches and 10,000 breakfasts a day during the school year.

“We know that because of those numbers, there is a major need for students to eat breakfast and lunch even though they’re not in a traditional school setting,” Rowe said.

Since mid-March when the governor closed schools to mid-May, Rowe said the district served roughly 125,000 meals. The district returned to Monday through Friday service on June 1 until June 10 for its summer feeding program.

The Coahoma County School District, which serves almost 1,200 students, delivered 1,200 breakfast and 1,200 lunches every day on Monday through Friday. The district ended their delivery meal services two weeks ago to prepare for their summer feeding program on June 1.

Maintaining employee safety is a challenge for all districts, but for some, trying to reach as many students as possible has been the biggest barrier of all.

Wilma McIntosh, food service director in the Clarksdale Municipal School District, said the stigma of the virus and rural areas the district serves are making it difficult to reach as many students.

“Even though the advertisement is out there and we’re encouraging everyone to come, some still don’t come. They may not have transportation and some they just may be fearful with coming out,” McIntosh said.

Clarksdale Municipal schools, Coahoma’s neighboring district, served grab-and-go meals — including breakfast and lunch — for five days a week. Across three sites, over 500 students received meals daily, McIntosh said.

But, this doesn’t equate to nearly half of the 3,000 students in the district. The district usually serves 525,000 meals per year.

As a way to reach more kids, the district implemented “Wildcat on Wheels,” bussing meals to students across the town. This one-day operation ended quickly for fear of the “safety for the community and employees,” McIntosh said.

Unlike schools, the issue for the Olive Branch Food Pantry, comprising more than 20 churches and organizations, wasn’t transportation. Michele McCrory, director, said their initial issue was finding volunteers. Their usual volunteers consisted of older people. Despite social distancing measures, they felt unsafe being around others, she said. As a result, the pantry closed in April.

“It was a hard decision for us. Many pantries opened during the COVID-19 scare. We have a couple of board members who are older or take care of elderly people, so they couldn’t get around people,” McCrory said.

The pantry secured younger volunteers and reopened in May operating as a drive through. They serve about 60 boxes every week to families.

In addition to food pantries, nonprofits and community organizations helped carry the load by giving monetary relief and helping hands for meal distribution.

In Tallahatchie County, The Tutwiler Community Education Center stepped in when the local school district couldn’t provide meals. Before the coronavirus, the organization’s role has always been to support the community in times of need.

“When the storm hit (earlier this year) and people lights were out and lost food, we were able to get a donation to get 10,000 gift cards for food to support that need and fortunately, we were able to partner with organizations,” Melanie Powell, executive director of the center, said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Melanie Powell, executive director of the Tutwiler Community Education Center. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

This time is no different except for the increasing demand of food, she said. They are now doling out more than 250 food boxes per week. At this rate, Powell says the center “will be a food bank.”

Through it’s FEED fund, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi received over $150,000 to provide meals and food boxes to food pantries, church and community organizations, and food pantries. The Maddox Foundation of Hernando and the Walton Family Foundation gave over $100,000 to assist the foundation in its efforts.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly hindered people’s ability to access basic sustenance, it doesn’t mean that it has inflamed an overwhelming sense of despair in all.

“I don’t want to keep portraying our community like we don’t still have people who have pride in this place just because of something like this,” Fountain said. “People are resilient. They find ways to bounce back. Even in this time of confusion, I encounter people who have smiles on their faces, who are happy about life. They’re grateful to be here, even in the midst of all this stuff that’s going on.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.

Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.