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From Behind the School Lunch Counter to the Front Lines of Pandemic Response

On May 1st of any other year, we would be marking School Lunch Hero Day by showing gratitude to the tens of thousands of school nutrition professionals who work tirelessly to make sure our children have healthy meals in the course of their school day. Even in the best of times, 30 million children in the U.S. rely on the food they’re served at school. Millions more are supplementing the lunches they brought from home. These children rely on the nourishment served up by school nutrition professionals to stay healthy and ready to learn.

This year, we mark a very different School Lunch Hero Day.

This year, school nutrition professionals are showing up not behind the counter, but on the front lines of our response to the global pandemic, distributing meals to children and families in need in their communities.

At Marquette School of Excellence on Chicago’s Southwest Side, dining manager Yolanda Beasley leads an experienced team of school nutrition professionals. Having worked in food service for 25 years, she lives by the motto: food is love. During the global pandemic, Yolanda Beasley is showing the love by leading her team in preparing 3,000 grab-and-go meals every day for anyone who needs them.

“The community shows up for us every single day,” she said recently. “Helping my school and having a sense of purpose during these times is exactly what I feel I should be doing right now.”

Today, even with 120,000 schools closed across the country due to the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of school nutrition professionals like Yolanda Beasley are wearing gloves and masks to distribute prepared meals to children and families in the midst of massively increased unemployment and food insecurity. In the past month alone, the Chicago Public School System has distributed more than 6 million meals at more than 250 sites, even though the district and its schools are closed.

School nutrition professionals like Yolanda Beasley are continuing to do their jobs at great personal risk. And their school districts are going out on a limb, continuing to distribute food to children and families in need without knowing whether they’ll be reimbursed for the costs they’re incurring.

That’s no small choice to make. At the present moment, it is estimated that some of the larger school districts could see budget shortfalls of up to $20 million or more over the next few months. And if school districts are not reimbursed, they could face hard choices and deep cuts when school resumes in the fall. Any reductions in budget down the line will be more devastating than ever, as schools will undoubtedly be confronted with even higher numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch because their families have been hit hard by the economic downturn or the surge in unemployment.


  • The community shows up for us every single day. Helping my school and having a sense of purpose during these times is exactly what I feel I should be doing right now.
    Yolanda Beasley
    School Dining Manager, Chicago Public Schools

Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been issuing waivers to make it easier for schools to meet the immediate needs of children and their families. Parents can now pick up meals at school on behalf of their children. Schools can send meals home to meet a family’s needs over multiple days, instead of requiring families to show up every day. These and other temporary waivers are helping schools meet the overwhelming needs they’re facing.

But “temporary” is the keyword here. Many of these waivers are set to expire on June 30. We call on USDA to extend these waivers that help schools feed children and families until at least September.

Beyond the coverage provided from waivers, there are other pressing issues to be addressed to ensure students and communities can continue to access the food they need. For example, who will cover the costs of the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided to school nutrition professionals like Yolanda Beasley and others on the frontlines as they deliver meals to children in need? What about the overtime being paid to school nutrition professionals who are working during emergency closures to meet increased demand? How can schools, who are often taking on the new role of feeding entire families, be reimbursed for serving meals to struggling adults who show up asking for food?

Without a doubt, we need to do everything possible to make it easier for schools to feed children and families.

That’s why The Rockefeller Foundation is awarding grants to three organizations that are on the cutting edge in meeting this need. Our grants to Urban School Food Alliance, GENYOUth, and World Central Kitchen will provide direct support to school districts to help them continue feeding kids and their families through this emergency.

School nutrition professionals have dedicated their careers to feeding our kids so that they can learn and thrive. Even in ordinary times the school cafeteria presents challenging conditions, as professionals serve hundreds or thousands of kids across rushed, back-to-back lunch periods—and they do so with grace and true care and commitment to our children. In this time of crisis, they deserve and need support from all of us.

Today, we mark School Lunch Hero Day in troubling but enlightening times. The troubles are plain for all to see. But they remind us of what really matters and challenge us to hold ourselves accountable to address the disparities we see all around us. To make sure that all children have healthy meals at school. And to support the people who are on the frontlines of serving our children not just in this time of crisis but every day.

The heroism being shown day in and day out by school nutrition professionals in communities big and small all across this country should give us reason for hope and appreciation.

Appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit.

Appreciation for the compassion being shown to those whose journey through these difficult times is harder than our own.

And appreciation for the brave school lunch heroes who dedicate their careers to feeding our children and now find themselves on the front lines of a global pandemic. Today and every day, they provide children and their families with the nutrition they need not just to survive, but to thrive.

Today, we salute Yolanda Beasley and her team, and school nutrition professionals across the country. And we pledge our continuing support to them.