The COVID-19 pandemic has required school districts across the country to rapidly rethink the ways they operate, including how to ensure students are fed. Within the New York City Department of Education, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services has made tremendous efforts to provide meals to all students, many of whom depend heavily on school meal programs. In early November, we interviewed Rachel Sabella, Director of No Kid Hungry New York, to better understand some of the successes of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services, as well as the challenges they face this school year.
From the perspective of No Kid Hungry, what are the greatest challenges the Office of Food and Nutrition Services is facing this school year?
Rachel: The New York City Office of Food and Nutrition Services has taken such tremendous steps to address food insecurity and to make sure that every child in New York City, every family, every community, and every individual has access to food. I think that from the day the pandemic started, the Office did everything they could, but this new school year is a whole new challenge. One of the challenges they are facing is school closures, where there may have been a plan in place and then COVID numbers go up, causing schools in that zone to close. The Office of Food and Nutrition Services is literally changing plans, sometimes the night before, to ensure communities still have regular access to food. Needing to make those last-minute changes that they can’t control is one of the biggest challenges.
I would also say awareness continues to be a challenge. We’ve seen no matter how often programs are promoted, there are still people who might not know about them. Making sure that people know exactly where to go and what is available is always a challenge we’re looking to overcome.
How has the Office of Food and Nutrition Services responded to the pandemic thus far?
Rachel: They have responded to a challenge none of us have seen in our lifetimes, and they continue to work in our communities, whether it is expanding the number of sites available or changing up the food options. Something that the Office of Food and Nutrition Services should be commended for is the efforts they took to make sure that there were kosher meal sites, that there were halal options at sites, and that there were vegetarian options. They really made sure that people were receiving the culturally appropriate and high quality foods that were available when school buildings were open.
I also think the Office was responsive when challenges happened, and many challenges happened overnight. They worked to address [challenges] immediately, and I can’t say enough about the incredible men and women on the frontlines each day. The members of Local 372, members of DC 37, the union that represents cafeteria workers, have been fighting on the front lines every single day since this pandemic started.
What kinds of policies should be put in place to address the concerns?
Rachel: I think continuing to have an open ear and listen to community feedback is really important in this process, as is continuing to look for new ways to promote the programs. So, whether it’s working with new community partners, or partnering with city agencies to promote differently, continuing to think creatively about building awareness is something the Office can do.
A challenge is always that so much of what goes into nutrition policies is overseen by the federal government, so we are so thrilled that [federal] waivers are available. I would continue to advocate for the Department of Education to take advantage of every waiver opportunity that is available to simplify their service and make it easier for New Yorkers to access food.
What is an area of strength for the Office of Food and Nutrition Services?
Rachel: I absolutely think that one of the biggest strengths of that department is the men and women that make up the team there, whether it is staff members overseeing programs, nutrition values, and compliance or it is the men and women on the ground working in cafeterias. I think their people are their greatest strength, and they are people who are so passionate about helping New Yorkers. These people have never lost sight of what the goal is. For me, the work these people do is very personal. My grandmother was a cafeteria manager in New York City, so I know the incredible people that are there.
What is No Kid Hungry doing to help make sure kids are getting access to food?
Rachel: No Kid Hungry has taken a lot of steps to help address food access issues. One of the things we work on is advocacy, so advocating for [federal] waiver programs to make sure that serving meals is easier and schools have flexibility to feed children. We have been really focused on awareness-building efforts, so another thing we have done is create a texting line: 877-877. There is a special code word for New York City to make it easier for New Yorkers to find meal distribution locations. We are promoting that text line every chance we get. It’s been on billboards, social media, all different places. We are so grateful to the community partners who have helped to promote this line.
The other thing No Kid Hungry has been doing is making grants available across the country. Right here in New York State, we’ve done nearly $2 million in grants. Specifically, in New York City, those grants have gone to print flyers about P-EBT in 13 languages. We’ve helped to support a school meals awareness campaign, and we’ve supported grants to community organizations to ensure continued access to food.
What can the public do to help support NYC School Food?
Rachel: We want the public to help get the word out about these programs. Across the nation, there are schools and school districts doing just what New York City is doing, providing meals to all kids at no cost to families. So, having the general public to get the word out about that, having New Yorkers say to their friends, “Hey did you know you can pick up lunch even if your child is not in the school building that day?” could really help.
I would also encourage New Yorkers to say thank you to cafeteria workers and school nutrition staff. If you see them when you're picking up a meal, just thank them for what they’re doing. They’ve been on the frontlines, too.