Park and Recreation Agencies Step Up to Provide Meals During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Maureen Acquino | Posted on March 19, 2020

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It’s been said that food brings people together, but never has that been truer than during these early times of school closures due to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). As schools close across the country, it’s become glaringly apparent just how many kids rely on schools to serve them healthy, fresh meals daily. Without access to schools, what happens to those kids?

In response to this pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved waivers across all states, enabling Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) sponsors to serve meals in a non-congregate setting and at school and community sites during school closures related to the coronavirus.

As a critical provider of summer and afterschool meals through these same federal nutrition programs, park and recreation agencies have stepped into a prominent role in their communities, working alongside local schools and food banks to distribute meals to children across the country. Here’s how agencies nationwide are responding to these efforts.

Indianapolis Parks & Recreation Department, Indiana

Indy Parks immediately took all necessary measures to ensure youth have access to meals. Schools closed last Friday, and by Monday they were up and running their Summer Servings meal programs and grab-and-go options. Meals are served daily at all family centers, and sandwiches are also provided for adults through a local hunger organization, Second Helpings. Lunches are also being served through mobile services at parks and apartment complexes daily.

Chicago Park District, Illinois

The Chicago Park District is partnering with the school district to manage 18 meal sites across the city. They are providing breakfast and lunch, as well as childcare options for families and essential personnel who must work. Programs are offered at no cost with a limit of 50 youth per day.

West Allis-West Milwaukee Recreation Department, Wisconsin

Most of the area schools are doing drive-through meal service, but the recreation department does run a Family Center (with afterschool and summer programs for kids), located at an apartment complex that is the highest concentrated area of poverty in the community. The department has partnered with Sodexo foods, and with approval from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, staff will be distributing breakfast and lunch in bags out of the back of a food service truck for kids to grab and take back to their apartment to eat. The department is bridging a critical divide, as most families in the complex lack the transportation to access a drive-through meal site.

City of Burlington Parks, Recreation & Waterfront, Vermont

The City of Burlington’s Parks, Recreation & Waterfront (BPRW) staff are working with local schools to pick up grab-and-go meals at the school and distribute the meals daily to five subsidized housing authority sites in the city — sites that have traditionally been served by BPRW as summer meal and recreation programming locations.

City of Fort Payne Parks and Recreation, Alabama

The parks and recreation department is lending the school district key supplies and equipment to ensure that youth have access to food, while using one city park as a drop-off location where kids can pick up meals to go. The department provides coolers for the school district, and teachers are loading meals into the coolers and on buses and delivering around the community at approved sites each day.

City of San José Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, California

The City of San Jose is currently maintaining a database of all school-based meal distribution sites throughout Santa Clara County, and many are adjacent to community center sites that participate in SFSP. Community centers are also closed, except to distribute meals through the Senior Nutrition Program but staff is currently exploring options to provide meals through SFSP at the centers.

Montrose Recreation Department, Colorado

The Montrose Recreation Department’s recreation center staff will be delivering daily weekday meals (breakfast and lunch) to Montrose County School District students who do not have access to a designated meal pickup location. Households requesting meal delivery are asked to complete an online form or call a meal hotline phone number.  

In this time of stress and uncertainty, there have been positives that have shone through. One of those positives is certainly the spirit and dedication of park and recreation professionals across the county. The quick efforts to mobilize, take unprecedented actions, and prioritize the health and well-being of those most vulnerable is an inspiration and a testament to the incredible individuals who serve in this field.

For more information on serving meals or supporting your meal sponsor, please visit the USDA’s Food Nutrition Service COVID-19 portal, the Food Research Action Center’s (FRAC) Preparing for the Impacts of the Coronavirus on Health, Well-being, and Food Security, and NRPA’s evolving COVID-19 online resource center.

If your agency is providing meals or supporting other community efforts to help youth and families, let us know!

Maureen Acquino is a Program Manager at NRPA.