Kids Won’t Get Food from East Lansing Schools This Week, as District Wrangles Challenges

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Students at ELHS on the last day school was in session.

East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko announced yesterday that the district will not conduct its meal-distribution program this week.

Leyko tells ELi she intends to follow the governor’s order to keep feeding kids who need it during the stay-at-home order. But first she has to work out how to keep her staff safe.

She’s also trying to figure out how to stop giving out food for people who are not eligible for the help, as the number of people obtaining food from the district has doubled in recent weeks.

Leyko wrote to families yesterday, “In an effort to preserve the health, safety and well-being of our food service employees and district staff who have been preparing, packaging, passing out and delivering meals, ELPS will not be distributing meals this week (Thursday, 4/9).”

When Whitmer first closed Michigan schools in mid-March, ELPS announced plans to distribute bagged breakfasts and lunches to any child 18-years-old or younger on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in areas considered to be most in need. Several days’ worth of food were given each time.

That system ran from March 16 to March 23, and ELPS provided meals for approximately 400 to 600 students at each distribution.

A new system that was meant to limit contact began on March 26, following Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order. ELPS switched to distributing a week’s worth of meals every Thursday for any child (18 and younger) and any person with special needs age 26 or younger.

ELPS saw the numbers then double. Offering food without requiring proof of having a specific number of eligible children and young people, the team was providing meals for 1,100 to 1,200 people each distribution day.

Leyko tells ELi that she believes that meals may have been supporting adults who are not eligible. She has spoken to Greater Lansing Food Bank about referring adults to their sites in the future.

Raymond Holt for ELi

ELPS Superintendent Dori Leyko at the Sept. 9, 2019, School Board meeting.

Then there were the significant health concerns. Although the people working on distribution preferred to place boxes of food into car trunks, this was not always possible. ELPS encouraged group pickups, such as sending one person for multiple families. But often cars had multiple passengers.

In addition to 4-6 food service workers, approximately 10 administrators and 15 teachers and staff members helped with distribution. Leyko noted to ELi that many ELPS food service employees are of older age, making them more vulnerable to the significant dangers of COVID-19.

She said it is also difficult for workers to remain six feet apart while bagging thousands of meals.

When asked if ELPS would continue to comply with the governor’s order for schools to continue providing food through closures, Leyko told ELi, “We fully intend to adhere to the requirements of this order. I’m just exploring alternate methods of arranging for meals. I only expect that our meal distribution will not occur for this week and that it will be back up and running – perhaps a bit differently – next week.”

So what might future weeks look like?

Leyko said she is looking into ordering prepackaged meals, which she believes would solve problems of social distancing in the prep kitchen.

In her letter to families, Leyko wrote, “We are also advocating for additional flexibility and waivers at the state and federal level that will make this operation safer and more manageable for school districts.”

She tells ELi, “There are no waivers for which we can apply as a district. I’m advocating for a waiver at a higher level to allow grocery store cards to qualify under the meal reimbursement program. We can provide breakfasts and lunches, but many families are still going to the store for groceries. I’d like to see grocery store gift cards qualify for reimbursement at the current meal reimbursement rate.”

In the meantime, ELPS families that had depended on food distribution are encouraged to use Greater Lansing Food Bank this week.

Update: Superintendent Leyko sent this follow-up at 11:43 a.m.: “As a result of a meeting this morning, we will be back up for meal distribution for next Thursday and beyond. Details will be announced in the next few days, but we were able to partner with a company that provides pre-boxed breakfast and lunch packages, so the preparation and packaging of the meals will no longer need to take place on site – just the distribution.  Again, details will be communicated to district families soon – just working out a few specifics and checking on available delivery days.”

ELi has a special section dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for East Lansing. See it here and sign up for ELi’s mailer to stay informed.

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