(By Lisa Held for Eater) As an attorney working on school desegregation cases in the South, GeDá Jones Herbert is intimately familiar with inequities and discrimination that Black families face on a regular basis. And when schools began shutting down in-person instruction last March due to the pandemic, she heard from many of her clients.
“We knew that [the pandemic] was going to have a huge impact on the lives of our clients and students across the country,” said Herbert, who is based in New Orleans and works primarily on cases in Louisiana and Alabama. “As we were assessing the closures, the things we were really looking at were access to distance learning . . . and food and nutrition.”
Her team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) zeroed in specifically on the connection between meal access and race. The education lawyers knew many students from low-income families depended on school meals for adequate nutrition. In 2019, more than 29 million children ate free and reduced-price school lunches daily. In the communities LDF was working in, they also knew that a disproportionate number of those students were Black.
Once COVID-19 began its spread early last year, school nutrition departments across the country began scrambling to continue serving meals in various ways. After waivers from the federal government allowed them to make changes like packaging meals to go, some districts set up pick-up sites, and others used bus drivers to deliver meals. But many districts began going broke in the process, and others faced COVID outbreaks. In response, some districts limited pick-up site operation to just a few hours a week, and others stopped serving meals altogether.
Herbert and her team argued that several districts that ceased meal service were violating civil rights laws, because such a high proportion of students eating the subsidized meals were Black. Even in places where meals were offered, limitations like site location and pick-up times prevented many Black families from accessing them.
LDF sent letters to the governors of Louisiana and Alabama detailing their legal arguments and sharing what they were hearing from clients. “A child without access to transportation by car in the Four Corners neighborhood in St. Mary Parish [southwest of New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico] would have had to walk four hours each way to get to the nearest ‘Grab n Go’ site, each of which was open for a mere hour and a half,” one letter read. “Even after the district eventually added a Baldwin site, children in the Four Corners neighborhood still would have had to walk two hours each way to pick up their breakfast and lunch.”
In Leeds, Alabama, schools stopped providing meals entirely on April 2. LDF sued the district there, forcing it to restart meal service. LDF’s efforts caught the attention of researchers at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of North Carolina. They began working on several projects that looked at whether access to school meals during the pandemic was affected by race.
The situation gained the attention of several members of Congress as well. In June, Representative Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chairman of the Committee On Education and Labor, sent a letter to former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “I am concerned that during this pandemic, many Black and other children of color are left hungry due to inadequate access to school meals,” he wrote, noting a dire statistic: During March and April, the rate of food insecurity for Black households was double that of white households.
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