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Food Distribution Update

May 29th, 2020

The following message was issued by HCPSS Superintendent Michael Martirano on May 28, 2020:

No child in Howard County should have to go hungry. HCPSS is committed to strengthening our food delivery service so we can provide healthy and well-balanced meals to children during the school year and other breaks. During the extended closure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have risen to the challenge of adapting to this unprecedented situation and providing students with much-needed meals.

The 14 HCPSS Grab-and-Go meal sites provide free meals to anyone 18 years of age and younger, and the program factors in a number of the USDA waivers including, but not limited to, the area eligibility waiver that allowed HCPSS Food and Nutrition Services to provide meals more equitably in Howard County. Over 800,000 meals have been provided since the program began, and the individual sites receive steady participation. Three of the COVID-19 meal distribution sites are located in areas where FARMs eligibility is lower than the system’s average of 23%.

HCPSS has dedicated staff who are responsible for assessing family needs. Each school has a School Support Team composed of principals, counselors, PPW’s, social workers, liaisons, and other staff members, who are checking in with families to ensure they are connected to resources offered through HCPSS, Howard County and/or community organizations to make sure that our students are supported. We are in the process of translating meal pickup guidelines during COVID-19 school closures into Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and Urdu so that more families can be reached in this endeavor. We have also increased the access to these guidelines by making them available on our web site and at meal distribution sites.

HCPSS Food and Nutrition Services implemented a process for parents and guardians to collect meals for their children for multiple days at a time, consistent with federal regulations to combat the hardships some families may experience accessing the meal distribution sites. We also understand that more and more families may be experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, so we encourage all families to check their FARMs eligibility as soon as possible. This will help us to connect eligible families to other programs and services.

We continue to evaluate additional or supplementary meal delivery options while ensuring that meal distribution plans retain the required program integrity and accountability. Delivering meals to students using school buses was one of the alternative models considered, and transportation and food services teams collaborated to evaluate the effectiveness of the model. We found that many school districts using this model have rural profiles. These districts were using buses to transport meals to other school sites. Other jurisdictions rely on the mobile site model(s) which we currently have at three of our locations. We have established and maintained controlled environments at our meal distribution sites which allows us to prioritize the well-being of our employees while also supporting the nutrition needs of our families.

Despite the obstacles we continue to overcome, we still face challenges and limitations. We do not have the capacity or resources to expand our services at this time. We project overspending on the food services appropriated budget for the current fiscal year and federal relief will not be sufficient to keep the food services fund solvent. We are also planning for the summer and for next year and while we’ll be able to use up the fund balance to offset the overspending in this current fiscal year, we will have no fund balance remaining to sustain the kind of operations we’ve had since March 16 should the closure extend into the next fiscal year. Staff is working to develop a plan and options for how we can continue to provide support for this critical service. We will try to access any and all federal funds we are able to qualify for and consider seeking supplemental assistance from the state or county.

HCPSS understands that school meals are a vital source of nutrition for many students. We are committed to providing free meals to students while schools are closed because of COVID-19, and we would never turn anyone away from receiving a meal. We must also follow federal guidelines, remain compliant, and be fiscally responsible as we continue providing these services. While neither HCPSS nor the Food and Nutrition Services program was designed to cater for all food insecurity situations in Howard County, we most certainly encourage and welcome any well-coordinated effort from other community groups to assist in the endeavor.