Six months later: government and education leaders reflect on ‘lessons learned’ from COVID-19
More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic as families have coped with health issues, job losses, virtual education and food insecurity, institutions such as government agencies, school districts and nonprofit organizations have amassed a number of “lessons learned” as they’ve changed their delivery model to meet the needs of their communities
On Sept. 24, Common Threads hosted “Beyond the Classroom,” a virtual panel discussion with leading experts in policy, education, health and food distribution, from New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Austin, to explore how their organizations pivoted after COVID-19. Panelists also explored ideas for how families and communities should continue navigating the coming months, as schools and communities are re-opening.
Featured panelists included Pam Miller, administrator for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Services (USDA); Kevin Brown Ed.D., executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA); Kenneth L. Fox M.D., chief health officer for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Christopher Tricarico, senior executive director of food & nutrition services for the New York City Department of Education. The panel discussion was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois.
The early phase of the pandemic created a surge in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollments, with 5.8 million more enrollments in April 2020 compared to March. Research from Northwestern University underscores this, showing that food insecurity doubled (with even higher rates for households with children) despite unemployment figures staying steady early in the pandemic.
Miller referenced a series of adjustments and initiatives to USDA policies, including 4,000 adjustments to program standards and the implementation of 50 waivers to help food service proceed with social distancing. Notably, the USDA increased SNAP funding by $2 billion per month during early months of pandemic, compared with $4.5 billion invested pre-COVID.
“We wanted to get flexibilities out so we could adjust for the situation and get kids fed,” Miller said.
Brown, Fox and Tricarico each expressed how impactful these policy changes were for school districts and the communities they reach.
“We were able to fling those doors open to respond. People were served, no questions asked,” Fox said, highlighting that CPS was able to act with “urgency and compassion.”
Miller also pointed to innovative partnerships that helped the government respond quickly. An example included a collaboration with Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global and PepsiCo to provide 40 million meals to rural residents through an expansion of the USDA’s Meals for You program.
Tricarico’s department made a concerted effort to uphold its standards for food quality and nutrition, maintaining initiatives such as Meatless Mondays and including as much fresh produce as possible since they could no longer offer cafeteria salad bars. Additionally, the team continued to meet its clients’ unique dietary needs, including providing Halal and kosher foods and delivering food to the medically fragile and students in temporary housing. These changes were maintained at a time when the food supply chain experienced shortages and delays as a result of the pandemic.
Tricarico praised his team of 10,000 employees who helped to make all of this happen, joining the doctors, nurses, police and firefighters as essential personnel during this emergency.
“It’s been tough but at the same time it’s been very rewarding to provide to NYC as a whole what was needed in a crisis,” Tricarico said.
Panelists also spoke to the profound impact the pandemic has had on the educational environment.
Brown, whose association works with more than 1,000 school districts throughout the state of Texas, explained that the inability to provide traditional in-person learning has created an “educational crisis,” including a “food crisis” and a “social-emotional crisis.”
By mid-September, many rural Texas districts were returning to in-person instruction with as many as 80 to 90 percent of families in these districts back in in-person school. Districts across Texas are reporting drastic drops in enrollment compared to the same period last year, particularly in the early childhood ages. Early estimates reflect 60 to 80 percent lower attendance in pre-kindergarten classes, for instance.
“We’re worried about those children because of food, education, and child abuse and neglect,” Brown said. “Oftentimes, we’re on the front line of identifying children in need.”
The panelists recognized that the pandemic will present long-term challenges on student learning and health, particularly if schools cannot reopen safely and if school funding is cut in the wake of an economic recession.
“It is a crisis that we’re in with our children. The problem is that we’re not going to know that in a real way for a while,” Brown said. “That’s the worst time to be cutting funding for education and wrap-around services for our students.”
The panelists balanced their concerns for the future by expressing the need to stay focused on their communities despite tough circumstances, continuing to adapt.
ABOUT COMMON THREADS
Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition, so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes, encouraging our participants to celebrate the world around them. To learn more, visit www.commonthreads.org or on social media by searching for #CookingForLife.