Closed schools provide free to-go meals, but some students still can't get them

During public school closures in the Bay Area, many of which will last through April, families with children who depend on school meals will have access to packaged breakfasts and lunches to pick up at local sites. These sites, along with grocery stores and food pantries, are considered essential services, and will remain available during a mandated shelter-in-place.

For children who rely on after-school food and supper programs, these meals won’t be available, but local food banks are stepping in to distribute groceries for entire families at meal pick-up sites.

Although pick-up school meals fill a critical need, there will, however, remain some students who are unable to access meals, according to Melissa Cannon, a Senior Advocate at California Food Policy Advocates.

“I think there are still limitations with this non-congregate feeding model, in that you still are requiring a child to go to school,” she said. “For our low income kids who have a parent who's working and can't make it to the school site, they're not going to be able to access that meal.”

The number of students who rely on school free and reduced lunch depends on the school district.

In the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), every enrolled student has access to school breakfast, lunch and dinner through the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve food without collecting money from families, or requiring them to apply. This robust access to food serves a critical need for low-income students during each school week.

According to the OUSD’s website, the school nutrition services provide approximately 7,500 breakfasts, 20,000 lunches, 10,00 snacks and 500 dinners to students every day.

In the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), 136 schools, many of which have Community Eligibility, serve 37,000 meals per day.

Cannon added that in many places, due to limited guidance from the USDA about how these programs must function, children are required to be present when parents or guardians pick up the meals. That means that parents who are out of the house, including those commuting from jobs, might face barriers in easily accessing the meals.

Oakland is responding to school closures by opening up twelve sites across the city to distribute three breakfasts and lunches on Monday, and two sets of meals on Thursday to compensate for school week daytime meals.

In San Francisco, eight sites as of Tuesday, with the addition of six to come on Wednesday, will provide daily breakfast and lunch pick-ups across the city. In Berkeley, six sites are offering daily breakfast and lunch pick-ups. The meals for both East Bay cities are available through March 27, which is the last day before the district’s scheduled spring recess. All pick-up meals available in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are available to everyone under 18; one needs not bring anything other than bags to carry food.

Over holidays and breaks, students don’t typically have access to school meals. And since school meals aren’t available year-round, many Bay Area families rely on other aid programs. Food policy experts maintain that CalFresh is one of the most effective programs to tackle both food security and poverty. CalFresh is California’s version of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Program, which is run by the federal government and provides a modest food budget to recipients.

Orla O'Keeffe, Chief of Policy and Operations at SFUSD, said that the breakfast and lunch packages will contain fresh fruit, vegetables and milk. At five of the sites, a mobile grocery pantry with fresh produce and other goods will be available through the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

Paul Ash, Executive Director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, said that the farmer’s market-style distribution pantries are important to feed entire families affected by food insecurity during coronavirus.

“It's important,” Ash said of the access to free meals while schools are closed. “Even when it's not this crazy time that we're in here in San Francisco, I think it's around 60% of the kids in the school district qualify for free and reduced price meals. I would go out on a limb and say probably another 20% are very close to qualifying.”

On Monday at the OUSD school food distributions, the Alameda County Community Food Bank provided emergency food bags of shelf-stable foods like beans, rice and canned vegetables for the whole family at all twelve sites.

Public schools are able to provide relatively robust access to meals thanks to an Executive Order from Governor Gavin Newsom which ensures that schools retain funding for food programs even if they close due to the coronavirus. The order allows schools to provide meals through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option, which are programs that provide reimbursements for meals.

Bonnie Christensen, Director of Food Services for Berkeley Public Schools said that the sites in Berkeley where they’re offering meals are all community eligible for free and reduced lunch, which makes it easier for the school to collect reimbursements through the Seamless Summer program.

And it’s not just children being affected.

Many people – most often elderly people - get confused and think they should not or are not allowed to leave to leave their homes to get food. Ash said that during the shelter-in-place and social distancing, people should continue to access food distributions and grocery stores.

“We would have a different kind of health crisis if people don’t get the food that they need.”

Information about where to get food assistance through the Alameda County Community Food Bank and partners is available at, or by calling 1-800-870-FOOD (3663).

Caroline Hart is a digital producer with KTVU. She covers food insecurity, schools, senior care issues, breaking news, and more. She can be reached at