Editor’s note: This article is a contribution by our editorial intern staff, Kate Lieberman and Ashley Kay Mauer, with support, direction, editing, and writing by YS Editor De La Vaca.
On a cool Wednesday afternoon in December, community members gathered for a press conference to plead for an audience with Interim Superintendent Kristopher Schuh regarding the food crisis Jefferson County students and families are facing in the wake of COVID-19, and a shift to online learning.
Pastor Reagan Humber, a member of House for All Sinners and Saints and Colorado for the Common Good, led the conference and was joined by representatives from Jefferson County Education Support Professionals Association, Jefferson County Education Association, B’nai Havurah Synagogue, Taking Neighborhood Health to Heart, Co-Op at 1st and Jovial Concepts, Go Farm Golden, BGOLDN, Arvadans for Social Justice, Triad Early Childhood Council, Jefferson County Food Policy Council, Lakewood United Church of Christ, and Jefferson County Poor People’s Campaign. Numerous concerned citizens and community members joined via Zoom.
On Monday, November 30, JeffCo announced a reduction in their food distribution model that caused alarm. The new plan reduced the locations and time frames at and during which food would be distributed to hungry students and families to just 15 sites and to just Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM.
This past Friday, December 4, Humber and collaborators reached out to Interim Superintendent Christopher Schuh, who was appointed in August after Superintendent Jason Glass accepted a new position as Kentucky’s State Commissioner of Education. They requested an audience and Schuh declined. Instead, they met with Steve Bell, Chief Operations Officer, and Erica Edwards, Director of Operations of Food and Nutrition Services. Schuh expressed confidence in his staff’s decisions, but Humber and his associates left the meeting with more questions than answers.
Bell suggested that the changes in distribution were made in answer to abuse of the system. “He alleges that individuals without students are picking up and selling meals,” Humber said. “While we are in the midst of a global pandemic we cannot be distracted by circling wagons or ludicrous red herrings.” Even if Bell’s sources are accurate on this matter, and to date no proof of these claims has been offered, there is still the question of whether or not it is really a concern worthy of limiting help to the people who do rely on it.
On Monday, December 7, the district announced a modification to their plan from November 30, which lengthened the pickup hours from one to two and added four additional pickup locations. Humber recognizes that this is a step in the right direction, but he is still concerned that it is not enough and that his voice and the voices of the concerned people he has been working with are still not being heard.
Schuh had agreed to a meeting in the following two weeks, following backlash for his initial refusal. However, a date for this meeting has not been arranged and because it stalled for too long – we haven’t had word that the meeting took place – it is too late to develop a new model for food distribution for the holidays. The longer changes are postponed, the longer students and their families go hungry.
Kristin Welch works with Co-Op at 1st and Jovial Concepts, organizations that have been doing their part to help feed and employ people who are struggling, even though it is not a normal part of their operation. Welch hopes to be a part of the discussion with Schuh and points to four main areas of change to increase the number of people JeffCo can feed. Those four areas are: Extending food pickup hours, possibly to include evenings and weekends, increasing transportation of ready to eat meals, utilizing existing staff to ensure food for the entire week, and improving communication so families know what is available to them. With JeffCo’s resources, Welch believes they can benefit families on a large scale.
Wally Maistryk is a professional bus driver, a member of JeffCo Education Support Professionals, and president of the Jefferson County Transportation Association. He agrees with Welch that existing staff, himself and other bus drivers, are capable and willing to provide their time to transport food and services to all JeffCo kids and families in need. “If JeffCo leadership can provide the food along with the addresses and locations where we can meet our kids and families, our transportation supervisors can route our buses for proper delivery and help keep JeffCo kids fed through their Christmas and New Year holidays.” A sign outside of Ralston Valley High School wishes students happy holidays and well wishes for their health and safety. Maistryk and his bus staff want to do their part to ensure that those wishes are more than empty words.
Maistryk’s proposal would be particularly important to help students in food deserts, areas where people lack access to nutritious food. Rhiannon Wenning, a social studies teacher at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School and representative of the Jefferson County Education Association, shared that some children are walking 40 to 60 minutes each way, sometimes in the dark, to get to one of the distribution locations and others are not even close enough for walking to be a feasible option. “We are one of the largest districts in the state and we should be a leader in providing hot, nutritious and accessible meals to our students,” Wenning said.
Jennifer Muñoz is a secretary for the Title I office at JeffCo. She is concerned with food insecurity among the students. Two years ago her office had a giving tree and a five year old asked for a gift card to King Soopers so his mom could buy food. Food insecurity – not knowing where your next meal will come from – is a heavy weight for adults, let alone young children. Two years ago that kindergartener experienced food insecurity and the situation has only been worsened by COVID. Muñoz insists that JeffCo has the resources to feed the community and keep people employed, but action is needed now to make it happen.
If JeffCo can help feed these hungry people, then they don’t become a burden to food banks, a problem that Tyson Neath has been witnessing. Neath is the executive director of BGOLDN, a food bank in Golden that tries to ensure that no one in the community goes hungry. BGOLDN, like other food banks, has found itself having to pick up the slack left in the wake of JeffCo’s students no longer being fed by the school system. “When we have to step up to fill a gap, it takes away from what we can offer to others,” Neath says. He hopes that community conversation and collaboration can improve the current district model to improve access to food.
After hearing from all of these different people it’s clear that this is a huge crisis, but it doesn’t need to be a crisis; everyone who spoke is willing and waiting to help.
Thirty percent of Jefferson County Schools are on free and reduced lunch and several are Title I schools, some with almost 100 percent free and reduced students. The usage of these organizations is skyrocketing right now.
A service that is currently being provided by JeffCo is grab and go meals. Organizations put together bulk packs of meals for families to last for a fews days. The idea is that this way they can have enough food to carry them over until the next pickup day. Although this is great, it is not all that is needed to solve the issue. There are an estimated 3,000 homeless students that attend JeffCo Schools; their transportation is limited and they are living in hotels, out of their cars, or in unsafe conditions. These people make up 96 percent free reduced lunch students. These students don’t have the capability to prepare bulk meals, much less store them in some cases. One recommendation is more meals that are ready to eat. But iff pickup times are limited to twice a week, ready to eat meals cannot be distributed often enough to feed these homeless students and families without the same storage concerns.
One of the major problems is communication. There are a lot of families that are simply unaware of what is available, so they miss the opportunity to take advantage of the programs that are in place to assist them. Having advertising and information online is a great tool, but it is not an effective way to get word to families that lack internet access and/or devices. A visit to Ralston Valley High School revealed lots of COVID related signage, but nothing that pertained to food pickup or distribution. A sign at the main entrance informs people that visitors are allowed for pre arranged meetings only, so going inside to ask questions isn’t an option either. If the distribution locations themselves don’t indicate that they offer these services, anyone without internet access is being excluded from these opportunities.
“This is a crisis, but this doesn’t have to remain a crisis. We are concerned about children eating; this should be a no brainer,” Humber said in plea for Schuh to meet with them so they can discuss possible solutions. He admits that they might not have all of the relevant information or all of the answers, but they seek a collaborative process to try and help provide families with the food they need to live, a change that is necessary now, not when it is convenient.
If you are interested in getting involved and helping out, check out the organizations we listed and see where you can volunteer at or where you can donate. Make a change and make sure that these hungry families and kids are getting the food that they need during these dark times. There is a direct action, feeding the food insecure, on January 2nd, both to help people and to call attention to district inaction.