School meal program calls staff safety into question
by Sara Krevoy
Apr 01, 2020 | 2811 views | 0 0 comments | 206 206 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As public schools remain closed to usual operations, the doors of hundreds of educational buildings are being opened across the city as food distribution centers.

One day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a school shutdown plan that would implement remote learning until at least April 20, the Department of Education rolled out a “grab-and-go” program in order to maintain access to free meals for the students that rely on them.

Three meals a day are available for pickup at more than 400 schools across the five boroughs between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m on weekdays.

Any child under 18 may participate in the food program at the location of their convenience, regardless of what school they attend. Families can search “Free Meals” on schools.nyc.gov or call 311 to find a site.

Statistics from the DOE depict a fluctuating demand since the program began, spiking from 14,003 meals served on March 16 to a peak of 199,481 three days later. The numbers dipped to 81,050 meals last Monday, before rising slowly to 115,865 by Wednesday.

Nonprofit news outlet The City reported last week that in light of low turnout, City Hall is making plans to extend food service to adults as well, a move that is sparking outrage from food service workers and their unions.

“The mayor miscalculated in his thought process on keeping schools open because children would use the schools for lunch programs,” president of Teamsters Local 237 Gregory Floyd said.

“Food is being wasted in the schools because they have to throw it away,” he continued, “and rather than close the kitchen down as any prudent person would do, he’s now reverting to feeding adults.”

Staff and advocates have also expressed outrage with the program’s practices, citing a lack of protective gear for school employees who are risking exposure to the virus in order to carry out their duties.

In response, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams joined education union Local 372 on Thursday to distribute masks to food workers currently serving meals to students at P.S. 307 in Vinegar Hill.

“As soon as you are determined to be an essential employee, you need to get the essential tools to carry out your job,” Adams said.

Currently, food service workers over 70 are not being required to work, but will still be paid, according to DOE. The department says that while it is ensuring that all employees have the safety equipment they need, the city is prioritizing masks for use by medical personnel.

“Our food service workers are on the frontline of ensuring our community remains healthy and we're so grateful for their service,” said a DOE spokesperson in an email.

“Every food distribution center has been given directions on how to maintain social distancing protocols,” the statement continues. “Each staff member is required to wear gloves, and distribution sites are set up in lobbies and entrance ways in buildings that are deep cleaned daily.”

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