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Fewer families are picking up food in some metro Atlanta school districts

By Leon Stafford, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

School leaders in Clayton and DeKalb counties are hoping residents will get back on track picking up breakfasts and lunches paid for with their tax dollars.

On a normal school day, DeKalb serves about 30,000 breakfasts and 65,000 lunches per day, DeKalb’s executive director of school nutrition Connie Walker told the district school board on Monday. But lately, the district has struggled to come anywhere near that kind of participation. 

It’s gone from almost 17,000 meals and snacks distributed daily in March to just over 15,000 daily in September, a schools spokeswoman said.

Adding to DeKalb’s woes were accusations during the summer that some families received food that was rotten or spoiled. The district said in August it was addressing the issue, including retraining for school nutrition services employees and making sure perishable items are bagged on the day of meal distribution.

The DeKalb and Clayton districts, like others in metro Atlanta, have seen pick up numbers slide at various points since March. They want to make it clear to residents that not taking the food is like leaving money on the table.

“Parents need to know that we get reimbursed when they participate in the school nutrition program,” Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said last month when the issue first surfaced. “We don’t want citizens to lose funds for a resource their taxes have already paid for.”

School systems across metro Atlanta launched grab-and-go meal efforts in March after the coronavirus pandemic forced districts to shutter buildings to avoid spreading the disease. Families lined up in cars to pick up the meals, which were distributed outside school buildings.

As the needs grew, schools partnered with organizations such as the Atlanta Food Bank for distribution. Later they began offering the meals on bus routes when schools resumed virtually in August.

LaTasha Adams, an assistant professor of teacher education at Clayton State University, said it’s imperative that schools systems get this right because it’s already a struggle to educate hungry children under normal circumstances.

“The problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic because you have families who may have never needed food help, but now they have lost their job or have one that pays less money,” she said. “For kids to be successful, they need quality food.”

Marietta’s city school system also saw its meal pick up numbers fall in the summer from their highs in the spring, spokeswoman Jen Brock said. One problem the district encountered was that it could only provide meals for students of the school system, which discouraged some families from using the service if their children were not enrolled in the school system.

In addition, when school started, meal delivery times conflicted with virtual classes, further discouraging those in need from picking up meals. That issue has since been corrected, she said.

“We have communicated with families through email, texts, and social media posts, and we continue to work with our school principals to ensure that all MCS families understand how our programs work and that we are here to feed all of their children, Brock said.

Not everyone has seen their numbers fall.

Fulton County Schools served an estimated 130,000 meals in March and saw that number increase to 245,000 total meals in April, the school system said. The district has served an estimated 232,222 meals since the first day of virtual classes on Aug. 14.

“For many families, schools are the one place their children can get a nutritious meal,” Alyssia Wright, executive director of the Fulton County School Nutrition Program, said in an email. Our FoodStop Meal Distribution Sites allow communities to continue feeding children while school is remote.”

Gwinnett County Schools leaders have also seen their numbers tick up from the spring, although they admit its partially because the district has more distribution sites, going from 68 in the spring to 132 today.

“Yesterday, we had 16,986 meal pick-ups,” Gwinnett Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. “Right after spring break in April, we were serving about 6,900 meal pick-ups a day.”

Things have improved for Clayton Schools, too. The district distributed about 59,300 meals in March, which grew to about 158,300 in May. But by July that had number had fallen to 93,400.

At the end of August, after Beasley called on residents to avoid letting their tax dollars go to waste, more than 412,000 meals were distributed. That number has grown to more than 634,000 after the district added a snack to the mix.

“The numbers that we normally have when we are in school face-to-face daily, we have been approaching those numbers,” Beasley said. “And that’s because you see the value and you appreciate the work of our school nutrition department.”