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For Low-income Students, Bay Area Districts Rally To Offer Free Meals

Lee Romney
Velisa Woods, a teacher at Sankofa Academy, is among Oakland Unified School District teachers and staff helping to distribute 'Grab 'N Go' meals to district families during the shutdown.

Bay Area school districts have scrambled to put plans in place to keep feeding low-income students during virus-related school closures. On Monday, March 16, 2020, the first Grab ‘N Go sites welcomed Oakland families. 

Click the play button to listen to the story.

It’s just about noon at Sankofa Academy, an elementary school in North Oakland. The campus is one of a dozen Oakland Unified school sites where district families can pick up food and Monday marked the program’s rollout. 

All over the country, schools closed down this week as public health officials try to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading. For low-income kids, that means missing out on more than education. Many are also missing out on the meals they eat at their school sites. 

Oakland Unified is among a number of Bay Area school districts that scrambled over the weekend to put plans in place to keep feeding those kids. The meals are “Grab ‘N Go’ — breakfasts and lunch. They’re available to all youth 18 and younger. And thanks to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, the Sankofa cafeteria also offered bags bursting with staples like rice and beans to supplement menus for entire households. 

“The breakfasts, we had bagels with cream cheese with some fruit,” said Iesha Aker, a longtime district food service worker from Claremont Middle School who along with hundreds of other Oakland Unified employees is showing up at the giveaway sites to make sure kids and families don’t go hungry. 

Lunch options included chicken sliders and ribeye sandwiches. Oakland Unified’s giveaway sites will be open Mondays and Thursdays, from 8 a.m. to noon, offering three days worth of meals, and Aker wants to let parents, caregivers and students know that they should come on in and “not feel ashamed. We’re here to work as a family.” 

Credit OUSD
Oakland Unified's 12 sites for free breakfast/lunch pick-up during schools closure.

These dozen sites are spread across the city. And they are needed. According to the district, about 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. 

“Our students at our school get up to three meals a day on any regular school day. That’s the breakfast and lunch of course and then in the after school program that we have, there’s a supper,” said Velisa Woods, a Sankofa teacher who’s helping out with the effort.

For some, she said, the schools meals are their only meals, “so to take that away from them, that’s gonna cause a lot of problems for hundreds, thousands of kids.” 

On Monday, the message was still making its way to families, through emails, robocalls and word of mouth. That made for a slow start. But Woods said as the morning wore on, the pace picked up. 

“We were about to start recruiting people from outside, you know just have curbside service. Hey, y’all need some food!” she said with a laugh.

Dedra Hunt was one of those parents who made it to Sanfoka on Monday. And she was grateful. 

It's just the panic of it all. You know, as the days go on it's like, two days on beans and rice. So this, this will help it stretch.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
OUSD staff help parent Dedra Hunt and her 12-year-old daughter bag up their to go meals and dry goods at Sankofa Academy on March 16, 2020.

“This is a blessing,” she said, “because I’ve been scrounging on my own trying to get, you know, basic stuff.”

Hunt rushed in right at noon with her 12-year-old daughter, who attends a different Oakland Unified school. They grabbed three breakfasts, three lunches, and a bag of groceries, courtesy of the food bank.

She was running low on rice and was thrilled to get some in her food bank bag.

“It’s just the panic of it all,” she said of the stress. “You know, as the days go on it’s like, two days on beans and rice. So this, this will help it stretch.” 

San Francisco Unified will start rolling out its Grab N Go sites today. 

Credit SFUSD
San Francisco Unified's sites for free breakfast/lunch pick-up during schools closure.

West Contra Costa, Hayward, Vallejo City, Berkeley, Pittsburg, and San Jose unified school districts are among those providing similar giveaway sites. More districts will likely be following. With the help of a private donor, SFUSD has also expanded its offerings to include supper.