As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, school nutrition workers are supporting their communities by feeding students and adults in need. But staff lack protective equipment needed to keep themselves and their families safe.
Since early March, at least 26 states in the U.S. have closed schools for the remainder of the academic year to protect students and staff from COVID-19. While this decision minimizes the risk of contraction, it threatens the food security of the 29.7 million students who rely on the National School Lunch Program for free and reduced price meals.
“I lay awake at night trying to figure out how we can do more for our kids,” says one school nutrition worker in a Facebook group focused on school meals.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) enacted the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act to mitigate the potential negative impact of school closures. The Act creates a national waiver that allows school districts to continue providing meals to students.
As districts roll out new procedures, school nutrition staff continue to support food distribution. Many staff members, however, lack personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe.
“Most of these people have [no PPE] or they’re using homemade ones,” Dr. Katie Wilson, Executive Director of the Urban School Food Alliance tells Food Tank. “I don’t think people realize that school nutrition people are going to be a part of the frontline, like first responders.”
The lack of PPE can make workers susceptible to the virus. School cafeteria staff fear they are a threat to their families. Some workers, for example, ask family members to take their temperature when they return home from each shift so they can check for the possibility of having symptoms for COVID-19.
The risk of infection not only endangers workers and their families, it also threatens meal programs themselves. In North Carolina, Durham Public Schools ended distribution operations on April 3rd after staff tested positive for the virus. Many other districts throughout the U.S. have made similar decisions.
But, while some programs are temporarily suspended, others are expanding. In addition to serving students, many districts, like New York City, expanded their meal distribution services to include adults, as nearly 10 million employees face unemployment due to COVID-19.
These recent changes have taken a toll on nutrition staff’s mental health. “The cafeteria workers are just exhausted…they’re keeping their morale up by helping each other, but on any given day it is very difficult for them to keep doing what they’re doing without a lot of mental anguish,” Dr. Wilson tells Food Tank.
Despite this demanding work, school nutrition workers in the U.S. earn on average US$10.20. Many also lack health care or paid sick leave benefits because they work part-time. Some, like Dr. Wilson, hope that this situation will highlight the important role that school nutrition staff play.
“I think this whole pandemic ought to wake people up and really open up their eyes to who these school nutrition staff are and the role they play in their community every day, even when it’s not a pandemic,” says Dr. Wilson. “These people really play a critical role in their child’s life and we don’t give them enough credit.”
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