by Carolyn Bick
In a normal week, kids who rely on schools for their meals know they’ll receive breakfast and lunch on any given school day. On the weekends, those who need to may take home backpacks of food or ingredients for themselves and their families.
But Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement on March 12 of a six-week closure of all schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19, has turned the idea of a normal week upside-down. The response by Seattle Public Schools (SPS) highlights a lack of preparation for this kind of crisis, but it also demonstrates the South End community’s ability to quickly pull together in times of need.
Although Seattle Public Schools plans to restart sack lunch distribution on Monday, March 16, that still leaves students and their families who experience food insecurity wondering where they will get their meals for the next four days. To District VII School Board Director and Federal Way teacher Brandon Hersey, this is “unacceptable,” particularly because many food-insecure schoolchildren are children of color who already face inequity under more normalized conditions.
“I think, especially for South End kids, we need to have better systems in place, and it’s unfortunate that we are learning through this experience, especially with food security,” Hersey said. “This plays out nationally, not only in South King County, but across the nation, especially in food deserts.”
Hersey acknowledged that the district is working as hard and as quickly as it can to meet the needs of its 53,000 students. And he doesn’t think this issue comes from disorganization so much as the speed with which the situation is unfolding. But Hersey also thinks this is no excuse for not having a plan in place for situations like this, given that the district’s most vulnerable populations suffer because of it.
Moreover, families who don’t have reliable transportation may have problems getting to the distribution sites SPS plans to coordinate, Hersey said.
“We know for a fact we are going to have a number of sites that are going to be available for families to come and receive food,” he noted. “But we also know that transportation plays a huge role in this, which is why having the conversation around what does the community partnership with multiple sectors of government look like, knowing that we have limitations in districts not only to provide food, but also what delivery looks like.”
Hersey said he does not know the number of South End students who rely on school meal programs, and Seattle Public Schools was unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.
Though SPS is not prepared to provide an immediate safety net, several organizations in the South End have already started pulling together to make sure students and families are supported during the shutdown. Rainier Valley Food Bank (RVFB) Office Manager Tara Migliore said that there are higher rates of food insecurity among families in Southeast Seattle than they see in other schools, but that any child who needs a food bank’s services is food insecure. In February alone, she said, the food bank delivered a total of 987 food bags to the 10 schools it serves in its Weekend Hunger Backpack program.
Migliore said that while some people can afford to buy groceries and other supplies in bulk, most families in South Seattle and her neighborhood in West Seattle live paycheck to paycheck, and can’t afford to stockpile food.
With that in mind, she said, the food bank is attempting to provide a steady flow of food for those families who need it. This involves preparing for not only those who regularly patronize the food bank, but also for those who may be using the food bank for the first time. With the sudden decline in business activity in Seattle because of new social distancing policies, many people may soon find themselves out of work and unable to afford groceries. But to serve this increased need, Migliore said they will need “pallets and pallets of food.”
“We are looking at seven pallets’ worth of food to feed just our home delivery guests for two weeks,” Migliore said. “That would be the elders and those with disabilities, some of which include households with children.”
Migliore said their patrons often rely on multiple sources of food, including the Weekend Hunger Backpacks program. While she said this shows just how smart and resourceful the community is, Migliore noted that, at this time, the food bank wants to minimize their patrons’ need to visit multiple places to get food to keep them safe and healthy. To that end, they are looking to provide two-week supplies of food to each household, with a large amount of dry goods to those who need it, so that they may be ready for a quarantine or illness.
Migliore echoed Hersey, saying that fulfilling basic needs like the need to eat “should be so ubiquitous, and so universal, that it is not even an issue.”
“When we know that kids are going hungry, when we know that kids are depending on a school system to keep them fed and healthy, that alone should be enough to push us into action. And that’s already where we have been as an organization. We’ve already been working to feed those children, and address some of those inequities that are causing that hunger,” she said. “What I feel hopeful about is a crisis like this can really cast all that light onto it, and I hope that our neighbors and our broader community see how stark the need really is.”
Migliore said the food bank will be open for families with schoolchildren to pick up food on Thursday, March 12 and Friday, March 13, in addition to its normal weekend hours.
Wa-BLOC and FEEST Seattle are also stepping up to provide hot meals for students who need them. The two South End-based community organizations will be serving free hot lunches starting on Friday, March 13, and then every Tuesday and Thursday, from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Rainier Beach Community Center Plaza for students who attend schools in Rainier Beach. Those who would like to volunteer may sign up via Google Form here.
While it doesn’t have any specific plans for feeding schoolchildren or the wider community, Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) is considering trying to utilize its large kitchen area for the greater community good, Food Innovation District Strategist David Sauvion said. At the very least, he said, RBAC’s offices will remain open, as the South Seattle organization does not want to hurt its student employees whose families may rely on those paychecks. He also said RBAC will be working with other South Seattle organizations to help keep South End families from falling through the cracks.
“We have one thing going for us,” Sauvion said. “We are resilient, and we know each other, and we are a pretty tight community, so, in moments like this, I don’t think we have any issue getting information and reaching out, and making sure we can be of support wherever possible.”
The Rainier Valley Food Bank is accepting curbside pickup requests on Wednesdays and Saturdays between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. To order a pickup, call 206-723-4105 and press option 2. Migliore said that patrons concerned about language barriers may also use Google Translate and email email@example.com. Please note that the food bank cannot accept same-day requests. More information on the food bank’s COVID-19 response can be found here.
Beginning Monday, March 16, Seattle Public School sites will serve lunch to all Seattle Public Schools students Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.,for the duration of the school closure.
See a full list here. The eight Southeast Seattle locations are below:
Dunlap Elementary School (Google map)
4525 S Cloverdale St Seattle, WA 98118
Enter and exit through main entrance from Cloverdale Street. Lunchroom will be down the hall on the right. Side doors leading directly into lunchroom may also be used.
Emerson Elementary School (Google map)
9709 60th Ave S Seattle, WA 98118
Enter and exit through doors near kitchen facing South Pilgrim Street. Lunchroom is immediately to the right upon entry.
Franklin High School (Google map)
3013 S Mt Baker Blvd Seattle, WA 98144
Enter and exit through main entrance on north side of the building facing Mount Baker Boulevard.
Aki Kurose Middle School (Google map)
3928 S Graham St Seattle, WA 98118
If serving outside building: Enter rear driveway from 39th Avenue, pick up food near center of building, exit on 42nd Avenue.
If serving inside building: Enter/Exit through the door facing Graham Street at the southeast corner of the building. Cafeteria will be immediately across the hall to the left after entering.
Mercer Middle School (Google map)
1600 S Columbian Way Seattle, WA 98108
Enter and exit through main entrance of east building (there are two building on the campus). Cafeteria will be across the hall to the right.
Rainier Beach High School (Google map)
8815 Seward Park Ave S Seattle, WA 98118
Enter and exit through main entrance doors facing Seward Park Avenue. Lunchroom will be straight ahead on the left.
Rainier View Elementary School (Google map)
11650 Beacon Ave S Seattle, WA 98178
Enter and exit through doors facing 56th Avenue South on the southeast side of the building. Lunchroom will be immediately to the right.
Rising Star @ African American Academy (Formerly Van Asselt Elementary) (Google map)
8311 Beacon Ave S Seattle, WA 98118
Beginning Tuesday, March 17, Schools operated by the Renton School District (including the unincorporated area of Skyway) will serve free lunchs to any child, ages 1-18 in the front lot of each Renton School from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday-Friday. No signatures or ID is required.
Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle based journalist. Reach Carolyn here.