Earning TIME Magazine Feature, Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services Department Shines Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Michael Wood, Manager, Education & Workforce

Many of Dallas ISD’s overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged students are heavily reliant on their school for meals. For students and their families, the closure of schools for the remainder of the academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic represented a threat to both their academic progress and basic needs.

Fortunately, Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services (FCNS) Department was ready to act.

At the outset of the pandemic, Dallas ISD was beginning its spring break and had plans to distribute breakfast and lunch to students in need throughout the week at 14 campus locations. Once it was evident that school closures would be necessary after spring break, Dallas ISD quickly pivoted to meet an expected increase in demand. By March 23 – the first Monday after spring break – the district had established 47 “grab-and-go” sites for meal distribution.

Now operating weekly, the grab-and-go sites have distributed more than 1.6 million meals since March 23, including nearly 650,000 in a single day on Thursday, April 9.

“Schools are closed for the rest of the school year, but hunger is a day-to-day struggle for many of our students, even more so considering the recent economic damage and job losses caused by the COVID-19 crisis,” says Michael Rosenberger, Executive Director of Dallas ISD’s Food & Child Nutrition Services. “We in Dallas ISD are proud to be here for our students, providing meals and great nutrition during this time of anxiety and stress. Both parents and students can count on us during these challenging times.”

The department’s rapid and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic is largely thanks to its ongoing preparedness for crises, such as natural disasters. Alternate meal service and safe food handling are a part of trainings year-round, enabling the department and its staff to adjust quickly when circumstances demand it.

For its efforts, the FCNS Department has garnered national attention. Six Dallas ISD food service employees appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine’s April 20 issue, centered on heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yolanda Fisher, a cafeteria worker at T.W. Browne Middle School, is featured in the publication.

“I’m still going to work because we’re still feeding the kids,” says Fisher. “If there wasn’t an epidemic, we would still be serving kids who probably would not get a meal until the next day. It’s an honor for us to serve those kids.”

Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa agrees with TIME’s recognition of the district’s food service workers as heroes during the crisis.

“There are so many incredible people working on the frontline of this pandemic, and Dallas ISD’s Food and Child Nutrition Staff are among them,” he says. “The work they do each day to ensure students don’t have to worry about their next meal during this time is an inspiration. Our sincerest gratitude goes out to them and all those who are putting the needs of others above their own.”

However, the success of Dallas ISD’s massive meal distribution effort has not come without its challenges. To overcome staffing shortages, the district has leveraged hundreds of volunteers to assist frontline workers and hired substitute teachers to further expand staff capacity.

External partners have also stepped up to meet the unprecedented need. Notably, Dallas ISD has partnered with DART to establish meal distribution routes for families unable to make it to the grab-and-go locations. Similarly, the district is working with Lyft to offer free rides to meal pick-up sites for parents without reliable transportation. Collaboration is also ongoing with the North Texas Food Bank to align efforts and ensure students and their families have access to meals over the weekends.