Feeding the classroom: Portsmouth Schools explains how data played role in keeping students fed during pandemic


PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Officials with Portsmouth Public Schools say they knew food insecurity would be a problem for some students as the pandemic loomed over them in early 2020.

With no blueprint for how to operate during a global crisis, they began early planning to make sure no student would go hungry.

Director of Auxiliary Services Dr. Jerry Simmons says when they began to see cases popping up of COVID-19 around the world, they made a plan to feed as many students as they possibly could in Portsmouth.

“When the Governor closed, I think it was on a Friday, we started on that Monday,” said Dr. Simmons. “So we had already started planning so that we could be prepared and be ready to go.”

Schools delivered breakfast and lunch to families of students across the district throughout the pandemic, even during the summer, and kept track of how many meals were delivered or discarded.

From September 2020 to March 2021, they threw out only 5% of the almost 700,000 meals they made.

They say this strict data collection drives everything they do for students and their families during the pandemic and into the future.

“We weren’t reaching as many kids, so using data, we looked at even adding school buses to our plan in terms of taking the food out into the communities,” he said. “So that was a major part of the strategy as well.”

Empty lunch lines in schools meant empty stomachs at home.

Portsmouth Public Schools say they knew sending those meals home was important because kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.

“Even when we were out of school, or the division is closed for the week, we made sure those families had those meals that they needed for an entire week,” said Dr. Simmons.

Allameshia Tiesman is a single mom with five kids in the school district. 

She works, goes to school online, and picked up the role of teacher for her kids during their virtual learning.

Those meals from the district provided her with a much-needed break during a stressful time.

“The baby boy, he loves the boxes,” she said. “He’ll come in and run and get what he wants because it’s a snack; he loves the snacks and stuff. And I also enjoyed the food pantry.”

She says her children’s father lost his job during the pandemic, so money got really tight.

The meals from the school district helped during the school year and the summer.

“By me not having the help I need from my kids’ father by him not working, it gave me extra to make sure my kids have and wouldn’t go without meal,” she said.

Food services staff tirelessly worked every day during the pandemic to provide these meals for families.

District officials say parents pick up meals now, but they’re looking at using buses to continue delivering meals again in the summer.

The program has been very popular and, unexpectedly, the pandemic prepared them for a program they’re going to continue providing in the future.

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