With demand for meals surging, shuttered Indiana schools ramp up efforts to feed students

Home to the largest state park in Indiana and the picturesque town of Nashville, rural Brown County depends on tourism to sustain small businesses and pay tipped service workers.

But amid the new coronavirus pandemic, “all of a sudden, this whole economy that was really booming … everything has just come to a halt,” said Laura Hammack, the local school superintendent.

Nearly half of the 1,900 students who attend Brown County Schools qualify for subsidized meals, and with campuses shuttered, the demand for food assistance is swelling.

More than 500,000 Indiana students receive subsidized meals at school, and with the American economy in free fall, many families who used to be financially stable are now looking for food assistance. Even though classrooms across the state are closed through the end of the school year, hundreds of Indiana school systems and community organizations are working to ensure that families have access to food.

MAP: Where Indianapolis children can get free meals during coronavirus shutdowns

Brown County Schools, for example, is distributing more than 500 meal packages every other day, more than five times as many as the district typically gives out during the summer, Hammack said. For about 25 families unable to pick up food from area schools, district staff brings it right to their homes.

“It is a logistical feat every day,” Hammack said.

🔗Leaning on community partners

As need skyrockets, some districts are partnering with community organizations to get food to families. In recent weeks, Indianapolis Public Schools has launched and grown a robust food distribution effort — handing out nearly 50,000 meals since Marion County schools closed March 13. The state’s largest district is providing food at 16 sites around the city, including schools and apartment complexes. The distributions are open to all children 18 or under, regardless of whether they are enrolled in district schools.

IPS is also partnering with Gleaners Food Bank to offer 17-pound boxes of food to families at 24 sites, and it has given boxes to more than 28,000 families so far.

“Obviously this is a need that we want to continue to meet in our community and for our families,” IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson told the school board at a meeting Tuesday.

Many families are relying directly on community organizations for food. At its warehouse pantry and its mobile distributions around the city, Gleaners is seeing a surge in demand, including from many people who have never before needed food assistance, said Sarah Estell, senior director of communications and digital strategy for the nonprofit.

So many people are in need of food that Gleaners doesn’t have time to stop and ask about how many children there are in the household or other demographic information that the food bank would normally collect, Estell said. “Right now, the lines are so long, we have to push people through.”

Meanwhile, Indy Parks, one of the largest summer meal providers in the city, is ramping up its program for children following school closures — and shifting from group meals to grab-and-go packs.

“A lot of the people seem really scared,” said Joenne Pope, senior manager of community programs for Indy Parks. “They don’t know when this is going to end. It’s not like a snowstorm, or a hurricane, or a tornado — you know it’s going to get better. We just don’t know.”

🔗Hampered by safety concerns

School districts and food pantries are trying various strategies to avoid transmission of the new coronavirus, such as putting food directly in the trunks of cars to avoid close personal contact. But safety concerns have led some districts to reduce food distribution.

Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, which enrolls about 17,000 students, initially provided meals through a combination of campus distributions and bus stop deliveries to serve “families that don’t have transportation, that don’t have safe walking routes,” said Superintendent Jeff Butts.

After spring break, though, bus stop drop-offs will stop due to safety concerns, though school site distributions will continue.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to comply with the social distancing guidelines while distributing meals in this way,” Butts wrote to families.

Concerns over safety led Lakeland Schools, near the Michigan border, to suspend food distribution altogether. The 1,700-student district initially offered meals at eight sites, but demand proved low, wrote Superintendent Eva Merkel in an email to Chalkbeat.

When Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an order requiring residents to stay at home, the district decided to suspend the program in an effort to protect staff and reduce the potential for spreading the virus, Merkel wrote. (Food distribution is considered essential and meals programs are exempt from the order.)

One reason Merkel was comfortable suspending distributions was that students who were most in need had received packages with four weeks of nonperishable items from a community partner.

The district is planning some sort of food distribution after its upcoming spring break, Merkel wrote, but “a lot will depend on what we are asked to do next to keep everyone safe.”