California students receiving free, reduced-price meals face accessibility challenges during pandemic

Nutrition Supervisor Celeste Alion (left) and Nutrition Services Assistant Sarah Garcia de Calderon (right) distribute free meals at Costa Mesa High School for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s drive-thru summer meal service on Aug. 7 in Costa Mesa, California. (Hannah Schoenbaum/MEDILL)

By Hannah Schoenbaum
Medill Reports 

Jesus Garcia, 17, depended on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s free and reduced-price meals program during his time at Back Bay High School in Costa Mesa, California. When the school closed in the spring of his senior year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Garcia struggled to find stable internet connection for his online classes and had trouble balancing his busy home life with the added responsibility of picking up meals.

Garcia said he was unaware that the district was providing free breakfasts and lunches during remote learning, until he received a call from his school informing him of a drive-thru meal service. The incoming Orange Coast College culinary arts student said he picked up meals at Costa Mesa High School for about two weeks but grew frustrated when he could no longer find a ride.

“My stepfather and stepbrother wouldn’t get off work until the afternoon, and they were the only ones with cars,” Garcia said. “By the time they finished and could give me a ride, the schools had already packed up everything, and I couldn’t get food.”

As NMUSD prepares for an entirely virtual start to the upcoming school year, students who rely on the free and reduced-price meals program, like Garcia did, are navigating a less accessible system to obtain the food they have been promised.

Nutrition Services Assistant Sarah Garcia de Calderon and Nutrition Supervisor Celeste Alion place four pre-packaged meals on a cart outside Costa Mesa High School for their first drive-thru meals recipient of the day on Aug. 7, 2020. The summer meals service is contact-free and will continue through Aug. 14 at seven locations around Costa Mesa, California. (Hannah Schoenbaum/MEDILL)

Orange County’s consistently high COVID-19 infection rate derailed the school district’s plans for in-person learning, according to a July 29 announcement. Though classes will continue online, the widespread campus closures will limit access to subsidized meals for low-income students.

“When you’re on campus, it’s as easy as walking up to the counter, they check your name on a list and you get food,” Garcia said. “It’s much more work when we’re remote. We only had [an hour-and-a-half] to pick it up during our online classes, and most of us didn’t have rides.”

NMUSD began its contactless drive-thru meal service when schools closed in mid-March. The meal service has continued to operate through the summer on weekday mornings from June 22 to Aug. 14.

Martha Fluor, president of the NMUSD Board of Education, said the district plans to offer a similar drive-thru service in the fall, even if schools transition from digital to hybrid learning.

“We’re still working on the logistics,” Fluor said. “With distance learning in the fall, there will be meals available, breakfast and lunch. That I can guarantee.”

Nutrition Services Assistant Sarah Garcia de Calderon carries a pre-packaged lunch to a car approaching the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s summer meal drive-thru at Costa Mesa High School on Aug. 7, 2020. The district has been distributing just under half its usual quantity of free and reduced-price meals each month since schools went remote. (Hannah Schoenbaum/MEDILL)

As of Friday, the drive-thru had distributed 301,850 meals over five months of operation, according to data from the NMUSD Nutrition Services office. Operations Manager Annalies Dewey said the district typically serves 126,000 free and reduced-price meals in an average month of in-person learning, meaning the district has been distributing just under half its usual quantity each month.

When the drive-thru service began in March, district personnel operated stations at 16 schools, but Fluor said they quickly scaled down the service to just seven elementary, middle and high school locations, all in Costa Mesa.

“We assessed and saw where the demand was, and we coalesced into just a number of schools,” Fluor said. “We’re still offering it to everyone, but only at certain locations.”

Coronavirus safety restrictions prevented the district from busing students to drive-thru locations, Fluor explained. However, the district removed other restrictions to the free and reduced-price meals program, making meals available to anyone, 18 or younger, regardless of need.

Back Bay High School math teacher Dennis Ashendorf visited several food distribution locations in the spring to assess how many students were showing up for free meals. The 63-year-old educator said attendance was lower than he expected.

“Not that many people were taking advantage of it,” Ashendorf said. “I sat outside watching how many cars pulled up, and they were averaging, in most areas, just one every five minutes.”

During the 2019-20 school year, 71.4% of students at Back Bay High School were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to data from the California Department of Education. Back Bay had the highest percentage in the district, while only 10.1% of students at Corona del Mar High School, in the more affluent city of Newport Beach, qualified for the program.

Eligibility is based on household income determinations from the National School Lunch Program. For a family of four, an annual income of $48,470 or less would qualify a student for free or reduced-price meals.

Ashendorf said he always keeps his classroom stocked with nutrition bars for students who come to school hungry.

“I think you should always have food available in the classroom for students who are hungry,” he said. “That’s part of your job. If you don’t do that, you’re being not as good a teacher as you should be.”

Back Bay High School was home to the highest percentage of eligible students for the free and reduced-price meals program of any school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for the 2019-20 school year. Though meals are not currently available at Back Bay, seven other NMUSD schools in Costa Mesa, California are running drive-thru meal services during the summer. (Hannah Schoenbaum/MEDILL)

The math teacher, who also serves as treasurer of Back Bay’s Parent Teacher Student Association, said the PTSA typically hosts barbecue lunches, pancake breakfasts and “fun food” events to engage the student community.

The PTSA is currently brainstorming engagement ideas for the fall. Ashendorf proposed tallying attendance points from online classes and awarding gift cards for the food delivery service DoorDash.

“There was nothing we could do in the spring because no one knew what was going on,” Ashendorf said. “Our ability to engage students is what it’s all about, and it’s getting weaker. I’m mortified, but I haven’t given up yet.”

Hannah Schoenbaum is a policy reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @H_Schoenbaum.