With in-person classes set to start in a little over two weeks, the fate of the popular public school-based grab-and-go free meal program remains uncertain, leaving food-insecure New Yorkers potentially forced to seek alternatives. 

Staffers at shuttered schools had distributed 47 million meals at about 400 locations as between late March and Friday, said Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for the Sanitation Department, whose commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, is overseeing the city’s food response during the pandemic. 

Some schools will likely continue to offer food to the public when classes begin on Sept. 10, but those locations are still being worked out, according to Nick Freudenberg, director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, who has been briefed by city officials. 

“To still not be sure what the plan is going to be on Sept. 10 I think just illustrates that we have a ways to go before we can be confident that even all the school children in New York will have the food they need to avoid food insecurity,” Freudenberg said. 

The Department of Education is working to figure out the safest way to continue to operate the pandemic-prompted program and City Hall “expects to be able to announce details shortly,” said Goodman.

The uncertainty loomed as unions for teachers and principals pushed the city to delay the start of in-person classes, citing health and safety concerns. The unions, in recent days, have floated the possibility of everything from legal action to a labor action.

An estimated 2.2 million New Yorkers are food insecure, compared to 1.2 million before the coronavirus crisis, according to the city, which calculated the figure based on unemployment claims and new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications. 

All public school families are getting $420 per child for food through a federal relief program. The city has also delivered 61 million meals to seniors and others in need. 

‘I Come Everyday’

For weeks, the free meal program has drawn long lines at some schools during the distribution period, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

“I come everyday,” said Kenny Vadal, 76, as he exited P.S. 253 in Brighton Beach Thursday morning. 

“I make sure to feed my family,” he added, noting that he used to work in construction but is no longer employed. 

Vadal was among those who picked up small boxes of cereal and sandwiches for lunch. 

“It helps,” said Frances Herero as she waited in line at the bottom of the school’s main staircase. 

Herero, who worked at an office in Manhattan, has been unemployed since March when the city went on pause. 

As for the program possibly ending when school begins, she said she’s “not thinking about that.” 

“I deal with each day,” she said. “If they close, I will try to manage at home.” 

Each person at Pace High School in Manhattan’s Chinatown was given one breakfast and one lunch bag on Aug. 21, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

In Chinatown, a line about 15 deep snaked outside Sun Yet Sen Middle School 131, about 30 minutes before closing. 

Masked patrons shuffled out of the building, tucking their meals into reusable bags and putting them into shopping carts. Many then sifted through their packaged meal — a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a vegetable, and milk — on park benches at nearby Sara D. Roosevelt Park. 

Meals served at public schools are normally reimbursed by the federal Department of Agriculture. City officials have said they hope that remains the case, although the total cost has not been calculated yet. 

Kitchen Heat Woes

It remains uncertain how schools might deal with outsiders coming to school for food as students return on staggered class schedules.

The lack of clarity extends how school staffers will juggle the demands of preparing lunches for the children attending schools, as well as for youngsters and families who remain home. 

Those municipal employees have long complained about extreme heat in the kitchens, and a lack of ventilation in many locations. School kitchen staff told THE CITY they’re struggling, in some cases, with aging cooking equipment.

A worker distributes grab-and-go lunch bags at Pace High School in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Aug. 21, 2020. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The union representing nearly 25,000 Department of Education employees, including school cooks and kitchen support staff, is urging the officials to form a task force on ventilation and cooling in the school kitchens. 

“The excessive heat in school kitchens creates work conditions that are unacceptable, unhealthy and inhumane,” Local 372 President Shaun Francois said earlier this month. “We need safe, healthy and ventilated school kitchens. We need a permanent fix now!” 

The mercury rose to 125 degrees inside the kitchen at P.S. 161 in the Bronx last week, according to Aimee Lacen, 49, a cook at the school. 

“If that’s what hell feels like, I don’t ever want to go there,” she said, adding that when school starts she and others will be bringing children the meals to their classrooms, increasing logistical challenges.