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‘They need our help’: Free meals during coronavirus will cost Baltimore-area schools millions without aid

School cafeteria staff prepare more than lunches for distribution at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School, during the coronavirus pandemic

It was lunchtime, and Shelise Harding and Christine David wheeled a cart to the walk-in refrigerator at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School and loaded it with boxed-to-go meals they’d prepared: fruit, vegetables, tuna sandwiches, crackers, bread and milk.

Bypassing the school’s empty lunch line and the cafeteria tables bearing boxes of Maryland Food Bank donations, the food service workers rolled cart after cart of meals to a waiting line of students, parents and others in need at a school entrance.

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The East Baltimore school’s coronavirus food operation went into overdrive on a recent Thursday when people queued up for more than 1,000 meals — 100 more than the school’s students normally eat each day, said Aikaterine Patrikios, the John Ruhrah cafeteria manager affectionately known as “Ms. Kathy."

“We welcome them," she said in an interview. “We know they need our help. We are here for them. That is the whole story: ‘You’re not by yourself out there. We are here.' ”

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Despite feeding whole families and neighborhoods instead of just their students — and busy days, especially when the food bank donations are distributed — schools actually have served fewer meals per day, not more, since closing in March due to the coronavirus, officials say.

The federal government has relaxed some regulations to allow meals to be served outside of group settings and picked up by parents. But because the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for meals on a per-student basis, schools in Maryland and around the country are bracing for tens of millions of dollars in losses from their food programs, unless they receive additional funding.

Food service workers feeding their communities are “incredible heroes people aren’t paying attention to,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance.

The alliance, which represents large urban school districts including New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Chicago, is asking for federal aid and is soliciting donations to assist its members with transportation, overtime, protective equipment and other costs.

“In the meantime, [schools are] having a major fallout from this," Wilson said. "I don’t think America understands the critical role they have always played in their communities, and now it’s really coming to light.”

Some schools are allowing adults to buy meals for themselves or providing them with meals through alternate funding sources. The USDA itself “does not have the authority to reimburse these meals,” a department spokeswoman said. Instead, hungry adults are encouraged to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Low-income families in Maryland will receive $5.70 per child per day in additional funding to offset the cost of meals their children would otherwise be served for free or at a discounted price at school, after the state was approved this week to participate in the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program.

“For schools that are closed, we are doing our very best to make sure kids are fed," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "Local school nutrition professionals know how best to feed their children, and we are working with them and their partners to give greater flexibilities and waive restrictions.”

Without additional funding, Baltimore City Public Schools alone expects to lose an estimated $15 million to $20 million from its food service operations during the coronavirus closure, said Liz Marchetta, the school district’s executive director of food and nutrition services.

Baltimore City schools have served 228,505 meals and counting at 18 sites since the closure, with children’s meals accounting for more than 60% of them, Marchetta said. Celebrity chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen has served nearly 20,000 meals at an additional 10 sites, she said.

On a regular school day, by comparison, the district serves about 90,000 meals, she said.

Without financial aid, the costs of operating free meal sites at city schools will fall to the city or the schools, forcing them to decide whether to continue them — and, if so, how, Marchetta said.

"This would essentially pit funding for meal programs against other important school district priorities,” she said. “Some districts and counties are better positioned to assume these costs than others.”

Baltimore County Public Schools had served nearly 550,600 total meals from Mondays to Thursdays at 60 food sites as of April 24, spokesman Brandon Oland said. (Separate Friday food drives have launched at Parkville and Owings Mills high schools.)

The county school system is using its food inventory “as best we can” and has opened up two new food sites, including one at Hereford High School, Oland said. Meals are free to all minors, he said.

“Our role as a school system is to feed students," he said. "The need is great right now, and we are striving to continue providing meals to students through this extended closure.”

Howard County Public Schools has served more than 450,000 total meals, said Brian W. Bassett, a county schools spokesman.

“Our food sites are aligned with the federal guidelines, and we are still working through the the federal reimbursement process,” Bassett said.

Harford County Public Schools had provided more than 258,600 meals as of Monday and anticipate giving out 156,000 more by May 15, said spokeswoman Jillian Lader. The meals come in packs that include a breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We are still working on total projected cost at this time,” Lader said.

Carroll County Public Schools have provided an estimated 530,000 meals since schools closed, spokeswoman Carey Gaddis said.

The Carroll school system is reimbursed from the federal Child Nutrition Programs for all breakfast and lunches and some suppers it serves, she said. She did not provide a cost estimate.

Federal relief is being sought “for any of the suppers served that are not reimbursed,” Gaddis said.

An Anne Arundel County Public Schools spokesman did not respond to questions for this article.

Students going hungry during the coronavirus pandemic was the top concern of school meal program directors around the country, according to a March survey by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association. Other worries included financial impact to school meal programs, concerns about cafeteria staffers and logistical challenges, including transportation.

But another, intertwined challenge looms large: the end of the school year, when school systems transition to separate summer meals programs.

City schools officials — and those in neighboring jurisdictions and across the country — are still working on their plans for food service during the summer months.

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And they’re monitoring any and all announcements by state and federal officials for news on any adjustments to ensure hungry students and communities have the food they need during the summer.

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Nikira Stinson drove from Belair Road in Northeast Baltimore to pick up tuna sandwiches, fruits, vegetables and snacks for her sons, Ayden, 4, and Jeremy, 17, and her stepdaughter, Tarie, 9.

Only Ayden, a pre-kindergartner, is a student at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle, his mother said.

“It’s convenient to pick up everyone’s lunch at one location,” she said.

Another mother, Mariana Molina, hasn’t worked in a month and a half due to the coronavirus, she said.

Molina picked up three meals at John Ruhrah, for herself and her two kids on a recent day.

“I feel good,” she said.

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