Q&A: A rural Montana school district scrambles keep kids fed during pandemic

When the pandemic forced schools to shut down in March, millions of kids who rely on school meals still needed reliable access to breakfast and lunch. Now, students are heading back to school, either to in-person classes, remote learning, or a combination of the two. But school nutrition staff never left; they’ve been on the ground for months, providing federally-funded meals to students and their families.

Rural areas, in particular, faced hurdles to food access, from poverty to inadequate transportation, before the pandemic. As cases continue to rise in rural communities, I asked Marsha Wartick, food service director for the Ronan School District in Ronan, Montana (population: 2,000), about the challenges of the past six months—and her concerns moving into the fall. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What challenges have rural school districts like yours faced in making sure that kids have access to healthy food during the pandemic?

We’ve had to be very creative very quickly. My district cut down on employees, so I had half the workforce to continue feeding the same number of children. We had to transition from feeding on site in the dining rooms to packing everything to go, and we’ve had to get enough food, and the right kind of food — food that you can pack to go. There have been a lot of shortages on different items, even lunch bags have been difficult to get. We started out with cold sandwiches, but that gets boring quickly; so we started sending out hot pizzas, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, and cheeseburgers, to try to keep our numbers up. The kids need to eat the food, and if they don’t, that hurts the families. 

A lot of us just want to pull our hair out. It’s been very stressful. I had a kidney transplant three days after Christmas, and was dealing with that when I walked into this. So I’ve been trying to stay healthy and keep people away from me, and trying to run the program smoothly. 

How has the summer meals program helped your district?

Here in our county, there are a lot of drug and alcohol problems, and a lot of broken families, where the grandparents or the sister or someone else has taken kids in, and they’re struggling with too many mouths to feed. I’ve had them come almost in tears, saying, ‘We don’t know what we would have done [without the summer program].’ A lot of them are on a very fixed income. Many of them are proud. A lot of businesses here have shut down because of Covid-19, and for families that do work, there’s the issue of childcare when kids aren’t in school. 

After saying the summer meals program would lapse when classes resumed, or by the end of September, the USDA reversed course last week, extending certain waivers and flexibilities through Dec. 31. Districts like yours, that had already started classes and were forced to shut down the meals program, were caught in the middle. How did you navigate the abrupt policy shift? 

It has been frustrating, and I’ve spent the past couple of days doing paperwork, trying to get us back on track. We’d already been in school for a little over a week when the USDA made the switch. Last week, we had to go around with a spreadsheet, to make sure each child who showed up for a meal was enrolled [during the summer, the district could serve all kids, whether they were enrolled or not]. It was hard to turn away kids who had been coming in all summer. Now I’m just happy to watch families pull up again.

Some advocates say the USDA should extend the program through the end of the 2020-21 school year. What do you think?  

I agree that the waivers should go through the end of the school year. However, now I’m just happy they will go through December. Things can always be changed and added in, and I understand that no one knows what’s going to happen. 

I’ve heard advocates say that food policy feels especially political right now. You’ve spent 20 years in school nutrition. What is different under the current administration, and during the pandemic? 

Yes, I do think everything is getting more political. You know, we’re here for the kids. And once you work in school nutrition, you start seeing things as they really are, like kids who say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here, we don’t even have any peanut butter at home.’ Democrats and Republicans both need to go out into communities and see what’s going on, talk to kids and talk to families. 

Moving forward, what programs or changes would you like to see, during the pandemic and beyond?

We should have something like the summer meals program, where we can feed all the children and their siblings, and children that are here from other schools. We need a way to feed any child, even during the school year. 

Some sort of universal meals program?

Yeah, you could call it that. A type of universal meals program for all children. Not all communities need it, but there are a lot that do.