The first day of online school for my kids, ages 13 and 10, had its predictable bumps, but not nearly as many as I was expecting.
They interrupted each other’s classes by popping in each other’s room to say hi. They couldn’t find the right Google slide at the right time and didn’t know what to do with themselves during the 15-minute breaks set up throughout the day. Miraculously, only one Zoom link failed.
But all in all, my eighth and fourth grader found themselves in the virtual classrooms where they were supposed to be. They quickly learned the difference between synchronous and asynchronous and how to switch to gallery view on Zoom. Their classmates (mostly) kept themselves muted except when talking.
One of the best parts of our whole day, though, was having lunch together.
About once a year, I’ll join my youngest in the cafeteria, and it’s always enlightening to taste the kind of lunches he eats every day during the school year. It’s been years since I ate with my middle schooler, though, so Tuesday’s lunch with all three of us at the same table was an unexpected silver lining of a school year that’s starting in a pandemic.
Austin Independent School District allows parents to pick up meals at any of the school’s 48 distribution sites. Thanks to some extra USDA funding, the nutrition and food services department can give away meals to any child under the age of 19 this fall, even if they aren’t enrolled as students.
The school district also has the universal breakfast program in many schools, which means all students can get breakfast in the classroom, often for no cost. The district is also continuing to give away caregiver meals through Sept. 18.
This means that when I went to the elementary school nearest to our house, I picked up six meals (two breakfast sandwiches, two crispy tacos and two sandwiches stuffed with pepperoni, cheese and marinara) that I didn’t have to pay for because of the various programs they have covering the cost of the meals right now.
Julian picked the cheese/pepperoni sandwich with salad greens, and Avery and I chose the crunchy tacos with beef and lentil filling and pinto beans. Because we’re home, I was able to heat everything up in the oven and microwave, and when they had a break in their classes at 11:15 a.m., we all sat down for an early lunch.
Avery was over the moon about having chocolate milk for the first time since March, and I was equally excited that the carton of skim milk tasted so good when I poured it into a glass.
During the first part of the quarantine, I didn’t take advantage of the district’s school breakfast and lunch offerings, but I wish I would have. I think I was trying to avoid adding an extra burden on the staff or taking meals away from people who were facing food insecurity.
But after years about writing about school food and encouraging my kids to eat what’s on the menu each day, I know that school districts across the state need all kinds of families to support their food initiatives. The more meals they distribute, the more buying power they have (and federal reimbursements they get) to improve the quality of the meals for everyone.
Public school students won’t be remote learning forever. And my kids are far enough apart in age that they won’t have many more chances to eat school lunch together, so I’m hoping these shared school lunches will continue for as long as they are schooling at home.
Unpacking Tuesday’s lunches and sitting down together to enjoy them sparked conversations about what their school lunches are usually like, who they eat them with and which dishes they look forward to the most. We talked about the economics of cooking at scale. I’ve calculated how much it costs to make a turkey sandwich with carrots, grapes, milk and crackers at home, so I could explain why it’s cost effective for a school district to make nutrient-dense prepared food in bulk.
We also talked about how appreciative we were of the school cafeteria workers who have been working all summer long to feed families throughout the city. During a typical 30-minute school lunch break, my kids are usually rushed to get food and eat it before they have to get back to class, but after we finished eating on Tuesday, they still had another 30 minutes before their online classes resumed, so we took a family walk in the middle of the day.
The privilege of being able to have this leisurely lunch experience was very much on my mind, but I also tried to remember that there are often unexpected pleasures and upsides to unpredictable situations. And sometimes they come with mandarin orange fruit cups and chocolate milk.
Here is a list of Austin district schools offering curbside meal service from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. You can find all the information about this fall’s meal services at austinisd.org/openforlearning/meals.
Akins Early College High School
Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders
Anderson High School
Blackshear Elementary School
Blanton Elementary School
Burnet Middle School
Covington Middle School
Crockett Early College High School
Dawson Elementary School
Dobie Middle School
Eastside Memorial Early College High School
Galindo Elementary School
Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy
Govalle Elementary School
Guerrero Thompson Elementary
Hart Elementary School
Lamar Middle School
LBJ Early College High School
Lively Middle School
Martin Middle School
McBee Elementary School
McCallum High School
Metz Elementary School
Oak Hill Elementary
Oak Springs Elementary
Paredes Middle School
Pecan Springs Elementary
Perez Elementary School
Pleasant Hill Elementary School
Rodriguez Elementary School
St. Elmo Elementary
Sunset Valley Elementary
T.A. Brown Elementary School
Travis Early College High School
Uphaus Early Childhood Center