Feeding the children: As schools close to slow coronavirus spread, concern grows for students who rely on school meals

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Lee Elder pours ketchup onto Pre K student Nivayeh O'neal's plate at Rivermont elementary school on Friday, March 13, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

For answers to frequently asked questions about the coronavirus, click here.

UPDATE: Starting March 19, the dozens of Hamilton County school sites offering meal pick-up for students while schools are closed will only be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For more information, click here.


ORIGINAL STORY: When Hamilton County Schools announced that all its facilities would be closed for at least two weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the first worry for many was what would happen to nearly 45,000 children while they are away - and, most importantly, what would they eat?

Millions of students across the nation rely on the free or discounted meals they eat at school, and for many, the hot breakfast and healthy lunch served at school might be the only meals they eat in a day.

More than a third, or 35.4%, of Hamilton County students are considered "economically disadvantaged" and about 64.7%, or almost 30,000 students, have access to free breakfast and lunch every day at schools - which means many kids might not have lunch while they are home from school this month.

Heather Modrow, a special education teacher at East Ridge Elementary, worries that her students will go without food while school is out. She recalled the story of a former student who requested fruits and vegetables last year.

"She said mom told her to eat healthy at school because there was no food at home and she didn't get paid until Friday. It was a Tuesday," Modrow said. "Families rely on schools to provide not only an education, but meals and child care during school hours...I worry kids will go hungry. They will eat what they can find. Maybe cereal, maybe a sandwich. I don't think they will get enough nutrition."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools to close until March 30 in wake of coronavirus concerns)

Hamilton County Schools announced Friday that the district will have designated sites throughout the community that will provide free meals for pickup for students who are in need during the closure.

"This is really a concerted and joint effort between the YMCA, Hamilton County Department of School Nutrition, Boys and Girls Club, nonprofits and community partners," said Bill Rush, executive director for the J.A. Henry Community YMCA.


At least 37 schools, mostly elementary schools, across Hamilton County will have breakfast and lunches available for drive-through pickup, as well as at least five community sites.

Service will begin on Tuesday and continue through at least Friday. Plans have not been made for the week of March 23. District officials have recommended that the Hamilton County school board reschedule spring break for March 23 to 28, but the board has not finalized that decision yet.

Meals will be provided free of charge to students, and families will not need to provide proof of school enrollment, income or free/reduced lunch eligibility. However, children must be present to receive the meal, and extra meals cannot be provided if additional children are not present, according to district information.

Before announcing school closures Thursday, Superintendent Bryan Johnson told the Times Free Press that the district was very aware of the challenges.

"We know that access to food can be an issue for some children when school is out," Johnson said.

Dozens of states have received waivers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the National School Lunch Program, to serve free meals to low-income children affected by school closures.

The waivers allow states and school districts to use funding from the Summer Food Service Program and through the Seamless Summer Option, and waive some requirements, such as requiring that children eat such meals in a group setting.

Tennessee is one of those states, officials announced Friday after Gov. Bill Lee's emergency declaration the day before. School districts have the option to provide drive-through or pickup services, drop off pre-packaged meals at community sites or other designated places or even open traditional meal service lines in schools, according to information from the Tennessee Department of Education.

The state education department also is encouraging districts to utilize nonprofits, local faith-based organizations and state guard efforts for distribution of school meals.

Various community organizations, agencies and even individuals and small businesses in Chattanooga had already risen to the occasion and started organizing ways to help support and provide for students just hours after the school district's announcement.

Willow St. Deli, a new vegan restaurant, announced on Facebook that the deli will put together boxed lunches for parents and keep pre-packed lunches on hand for those who might need help.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga service groups must balance safety with caring for the homeless as coronavirus concerns grow)

Most lunches will include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit cup, fig bar or a Clif bar and chips or veggie straws.

"With schools closing, we realize things get tight. We also realize the stress of extra meals for those days your children were at school. We're putting together some boxed lunches for parents who may need a little extra help with everything going on," deli owner Linley Hollywood said in a Facebook post.

While the Hamilton County Department of Education's public schools are closed, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga's two locations in Highland Park will be open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., serving children breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, according to James Morgan, chief executive officer.

New York Pizza Department, a pizzeria in Hixson, also will be providing meals for those in need. Owner Erik Cilen said Hamilton County Schools' announcement broke his heart.

"During school closures, if you truly cannot afford to feed your children and we can keep our doors open during the upcoming events please come in and dine with us," Cilen said in a Facebook post. "I will feed your children free of charge morning, day or night while I have the means to do so. I just kindly ask that if I assist you, it's because you truly need the help. No questions asked. In times of darkness, may we all be the light."

Sophie Moore, spokesperson for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, said food insecurity extends past schoolchildren.

"In our region, which covers 20 counties in Tennessee and North Georgia, 1 in 8 people overall are food insecure. That means they don't know where their next meal is going to come from," Moore told the Times Free Press. "About 14,000 kids across our region get snack packs every week, so when school's out, they don't get those resources."

The food bank is also working with the YMCA and Hamilton County Schools, but Moore said it is in dire need of help because of volunteer groups canceling commitments over concerns about the coronavirus.

"We really need volunteers right now. We've had some groups cancel out of an abundance of caution/safety, which we totally understand, but there is still a great need," Moore said.

If the food bank were not to receive another donation of funds or food, it would run out of available resources within about a month.

"We also need people's generosity to bridge this gap that we are facing. It's not just kids. If parents have to stay home to take care of their kids, and they work an hourly job, if they don't work they don't get paid," Moore added.

For a complete list of food sites and organizations providing meals, click here.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


Service will begin Tuesday, March 17, and run through at least March 20. Breakfast will be served from 7 to 9 a.m. and lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., according to Hamilton County Schools. Harrison Bay - Bess T. Shepherd Elementary - Harrison Elementary - Hillcrest Elementary - Lakeside Academy - Ooltewah Elementary - Snow Hill Elementary - Wallace A. Smith Elementary - Wolftever Creek Elementary Missionary Ridge - CSLA - East Brainerd Elementary - East Ridge Elementary - East Side Elementary - Spring Creek Elementary North River - Allen Elementary - Big Ridge Elementary - Daisy Elementary - Hixson Elementary - McConnell Elementary - Middle Valley Elementary - North Hamilton County Elementary - Soddy Elementary Opportunity Zone - Barger Academy - Calvin Donaldson Elementary - Clifton Hills Elementary - East Lake Elementary - Hardy Elementary - Orchard Knob Elementary - Woodmore Elementary Rock Point - Alpine Crest Elementary - Battle Academy - Brown Academy - CSAS - Lookout Valley Elementary - Nolan Elementary - Normal Park Upper - Red Bank Elementary - Rivermont Elementary Community Sites - College Hill Courts (Westside), 1300 Grove St. Court – East Lake Salvation Army, 2140 E 28th St. - Emma Wheeler Homes, 4900 Edinburg Drive - Highland Park Commons, 2000 Union Ave. in the Pavilion - Orchard Park Seventh Day Adventist Church, 951 N. Orchard Knob Ave.