In mid-March 2020, when schools across the nation closed, parents and educators voiced concern. How would students stay focused when classes were remote? How would parents juggle their own work and supervise their children’s learning? What about families without computer or internet access?
But beneath those concerns lay far more profound worries about mental health, family survival, and nutrition for the 22 million students across the nation who rely on free and reduced-price school meals (1). In all these areas, schools stepped up to care for their communities, often providing support — including stipends for parents who had lost jobs — out of their own budgets.
That support includes ensuring that students receive proper nutrition. Children can’t learn on an empty stomach. That’s why schools began providing hot lunches as early as 1894 (2). So, in March, when the world closed its doors and remote learning became the norm, the question of how to continue to feed students reliant on school breakfasts, lunches and snacks was just as pressing as how to supply internet and laptops to those without them. As Kate Mehok, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of BlueHub borrower Crescent City Schools in New Orleans, Louisiana recounts, “About 95% of our students qualify for free lunch. When we knew that we probably were going to close, we immediately thought about how we would get food to them. Our last day of regular school was Friday, March 11. That Monday we started providing bagged breakfasts and lunches.”
All the schools in Orleans Parish, the district where Crescent City operates, are charter schools. Mehok credits the relative lack of bureaucracy with their ability to work swiftly. “Our neighboring district that serves 50,000 kids wasn’t able to provide meals for weeks, whereas we were able to just call our food service provider and say, ‘We want to start meal service on Monday.’”
Because of the flexibility provided by the federal government school food program during the pandemic, parents are able to collect the meals from the school closest to them, rather than the one their children attend, which can make a real difference for those trying to juggle the many new daily stresses the pandemic has brought.
In Roxbury, Massachusetts, Bridge Boston Charter School took a slightly different approach. Four years ago, BlueHub helped finance the acquisition and renovation of the school building with a $2.8 million loan. Bridge Boston serves children from surrounding neighborhoods whose rates of multi-generational poverty and homelessness are among the highest in the area. At the start of the pandemic, Bridge Boston dug into its own budget to create meals in a box, distributing two new recipes each week and enough ingredients to feed six people. As the pandemic ground on, they shifted the model, tapping into Seamless Summer Option funds to provide five days’ worth of breakfast, lunch, and snack — delivered right to their students’ doors.
Each week, Food Service Director Guy Koppe and his team spend two full days cooking and freezing meals. In an ingenious twist, they also freeze juice boxes to serve as freezer packs during delivery. Then the team rents a truck for two days, and it’s all-hands-on-deck. “It’s a community thing, where everyone helps out. My boss, the Finance Director, comes in to help pack the truck. Our custodial staff are generally the folks making deliveries.”
That’s not surprising. These educators are wholly committed to meeting the needs of their students — starting with nutrition — wherever those students may be.
What makes it a classroom?
Imagine being 6 years old and having most of your school time be outdoors. If you attend Tubman Montessori in New Orleans, Louisiana, that might be your experience. The open-enrollment school, part of the Crescent City School network, spans pre-K to grade 2. A few years ago, the staff totally rethought what school could be — then, with the help of a $6.3 million loan from BlueHub, they acquired and renovated a campus centered around outdoor play structures and spaces that serve as open-air classrooms, as well as modern classrooms and a new gym. Although conceived in a world before COVID-19, the new campus opened in 2020, and has been particularly valuable as students return to onsite learning. The design, unique in the country, may just help change the definition of a classroom.