Yakima School District leads WA in youth meal distributions

Yakima School District

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — By 10:30 Wednesday morning, a line of cars stretched three blocks surrounding Yakima School District’s Washington Middle School. More cars continued to arrive in anticipation of the weekly meal distribution, which is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to noon at several district schools.

“They start lining up at 9:30,” said Scott Izutsu, associate superintendent of business services for the district. “There have been times where I’ve been at a school and at 9 o’clock, the first car is there.”

Other cars pulled into the school parking lot for students to jump out for a walk-up pickup. Some days, the walk-up line stretches a block as well, according to an assistant principal at Washington Middle School.

The meals are available to all youths 18 and under as part of the district’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Districts statewide are offering similar meal services to ensure students and youths in the community are nourished during ongoing campus closures intended to prevent the spread of the respiratory virus.

The Yakima School District has far outpaced other districts in the state in the number of meals it has distributed. When school is in regular session, Yakima provides free breakfast and lunch to all of its 16,000 students because of a high level of need.

Since schools closed for the duration of the school year on March 13, Yakima School District has reported distributing 379,816 meals to local youths, according to the most recent data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. For comparison, the runner-up, Pasco School District in nearby Franklin County, reported 143,418 meals.

When the district began passing out meals, it was distributing a sack with one breakfast and lunch to youths each weekday at all school campuses. District employees ranging from teachers to office staff, cooks and custodians hand-packaged meals with items like fruits, veggies, main dishes and boxes of milk — a tedious process that required many hands daily, in addition to the distribution process itself.

Federal rules were soon adjusted to allow several days’ worth of meals to be distributed at once, allowing the district to move to weekly packages and pickup days to reduce potential staff exposure to the respiratory virus.

Distribution locations were also adjusted. Meals are distributed weekly at Eisenhower High School, Franklin Middle School, Garfield, Hoover, McClure and Ridgeview elementary schools, as well as Washington. Distribution at Barge-Lincoln Elementary School will resume on May 27. Children must be present.

On Wednesday, the district further consolidated efforts by launching prepacked, shelf-stable meal distributions with five breakfasts and five lunches per youth. The new system requires only a handful of food services staff across the district to compile each package with a set of meals. Then, on the pickup day, support staff stand curbside to hand them out.

At Washington this week, six tables were set up on the sidewalk, with two staff members at each. The first six cars would pull up beside them, staff would count the number of children in the car and place the appropriate bundles of food and milk on the table and step away. Then, the passengers would exit the car to load the goods before driving away, allowing the next shift of six cars to pull up.

A total of 49,770 meals were distributed districtwide on Wednesday alone.

While the district is serving fewer youths than it would on campus, Izutsu said the cost of the service is far greater. The district is paying staff hazard pay on top of their regular salary to compensate for the risk they are taking in the front-line service. In addition to that, the meals themselves are more costly, he said.

Ordinarily, each school meal averages out to cost $1.77. When school closures began, the cost of meals increased due in part to the demand for goods, said Izutsu, raising the average cost per meal to $2.55. The prepackaged meals cost even more, at about $3.67.

That’s a difference of around $90,000 more for Wednesday’s meal distribution alone than what the district would usually incur for the same number of meals.

But Izutsu said the prepackaged meals also lower the salary cost to the district and help reduce potential staff exposure, since fewer people gather in the days before distribution to prepare the meal packages.

“Can you really put a price on health?” he added.

The district ordinarily gets reimbursed for its meal distribution. But Izutsu said it is also hoping to see some of the federal CARES stimulus act funds come its way, to help cover some of the added costs of prepackaged goods and hazard pay, which he said would qualify for coverage.

“We’re tracking all the costs. We’re identifying the costs and the difference from the original,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll see that money.”

The increased costs come less than a year after the district severed a long-running contract with a food services company in an effort to remedy a $1.1 million budget deficit in this area alone.

Izutsu said the district is trying to determine summer meal distribution plans. Ordinarily, the district provides roughly 800 meals per day to low-income youths over the summer. This year, that need could be much greater.

“We’re not really sure what to expect,” he said.

In the meantime, the weekly food distribution is not only an opportunity to nourish youth but to check in on them, said Nicole Rivera, office manager at Washington Middle School, who was among those passing out meal packages.

She said some district records of students’ contact information wasn’t correct, making it challenging for staff or teachers to reach them initially. The meal distribution is an opportunity to reconnect.

“A lot of (students) just miss us. They want to say hi,” said Rivera. “It’s nice to be able to talk to our families and get a hold of those kids we weren’t able to and get to know new families — our community.”