By Katie Maschino, Hunger Outreach Specialist
If you ask any team member at Hunger Free Oklahoma, we will tell you our vision is that all Oklahomans have enough food every day. While some days that vision feels more achievable than others, it is the driving force behind our work.
You will also hear us talk about how impactful local schools can be in helping achieve this vision. And how school meals are an incredible resource and provide so many benefits for so many families across Oklahoma.
Increasing school breakfast participation has real benefits including calmer classrooms and increased concentration and academic performance. The 2019-2020 school year challenged how we view school breakfast; it is not just a benefit, but a necessity.
Hundreds of thousands of children in Oklahoma rely on school meals on a regular basis. So, when schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that dependable source of school meals disappeared almost overnight and it emphasized the need for many children across the state.
Enter your local school nutrition team.
School nutrition team members – Monroe Elementary School (OKCPS)
HFO team member and nutrition team members – Robertson Elementary School (TPS)
School nutrition team members – Keystone Elementary School (Keystone Public Schools)
School nutrition professionals are heroes behind the scenes. They are doing extraordinary work making sure students and families in their communities stay fed, when not much else in life has been certain. During the pandemic, they have been able to pivot on a dime to rise to this new level of challenge no one has experienced before.
Innovative school meal service models, like those used for Breakfast After the Bell, are essential in meeting the need. Thanks to nationwide waivers issued by the USDA, normal barriers have been reduced and school nutrition teams have been able to reach more children in communities across Oklahoma.
In a SWITCH partner project, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) and Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) sent out a survey to school nutrition professionals to gauge what innovations they were implementing. Alternative meal service models were the overwhelming majority in school districts across the state.
This survey showed that grab and go, along with drive thru or curbside pick up have been the overwhelming choice of meal service during the pandemic. Other creative ways school nutrition teams have been serving meals to their students include mobile or school bus route delivery, direct home delivery, and meals in the classroom when school is in-person.
According to a recent study by the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC), Oklahoma is one of the few states to increase school breakfast participation during the pandemic by almost 25% (snapshot data taken in April 2020). That means 1 out of 4 children who normally didn’t get a school breakfast was now receiving those meals.
From September 2019 to February 2020, Oklahoma had the largest percentage of growth – a 13.1% increase in school breakfast participation among low-income students – compared to the prior year. These statistics demonstrate that alternative meal service models, like incorporating breakfast into the school day, are a critical step in helping us expand access to food for children. School nutrition teams have a reach that many other organizations don’t have, and can make what often seems impossible, possible. They can help make sure every child in school in Oklahoma is fed.
But hunger isn’t limited to the school day.
Together, school nutrition teams and community partners have the opportunity to foster year-round food access for students, connect more afterschool programs in at-risk areas to suppers and snacks, and share grocery assistance with students and families to protect child food security across Oklahoma.
2020 has shown us what is possible. The new normal is to feed all children, use alternative meal models, serve all year, and connect families to hunger-fighting resources like the Meals4KidsOK.org meal mapper, the toll-free SNAP application hotline, and the grocery assistance page.
The Oklahoma Standard is to meet each challenge, lend a helping hand in our communities, and collectively be the solution.
Together we can turn 2021 and a time of need into an extraordinary future where all Oklahoma children have enough to eat every day. It will take cross-organizational communication and planning. Hunger Free Oklahoma is here to help map coverage, facilitate conversations, and help communities find sustainable solutions. Let’s all celebrate and join local hunger fighters. Together we can end child hunger.
Anyone can step in to help in times of need and be extraordinary.
National School Breakfast Week is March 8 – 12, 2021 and we want to highlight all of the amazing work your local school nutrition team has accomplished! If you know a school nutrition professional in your community, complete this form and Hunger Free Oklahoma will give them a shout out on social media during National School Breakfast Week!
If you are a school nutrition professional and you want to share your COVID-19 story, please complete this form.