Essaibi-George Launches Weekly ‘Lunch & Learn’ Series

On September 11, City Councilor At-Large Annissa Essaibi-George launched a Facebook Live series called Lunch & Learn, where she will chat with Boston Public Schools (BPS) staff and community members weekly about the BPS Ready plan.

“As a BPS parent, former teacher, and Chair of Education, my top priority is ensuring our kids receive a high quality education, keeping our school communities safe and healthy, and keeping the BPS community informed about how BPS is responding to the impact of COVID-19,” Essaibi-George wrote.

The September 11 “lunch hour” discussion was centered around food distribution in BPS with Laura Benavidez, Executive Director of Food and Nutrition for BPS.

Essaibi-George said that since the beginning of the pandemic, 1.8 million meals have been served to youth in the City through BPS distribution sites.

BPS schools officially closed on March 16, Benavidez said, and 17 food sites were up and running by March 17. “Since March, we’ve been growing strong,” she said. Meals were provided during holidays and vacation breaks throughout the summer.

“Hunger doesn’t take a break,” she said. She also said that the pandemic has allowed BPS to be more creative about how to get meals to students and making sure they always have access to healthy food.

Moving into the new school year, she said that breakfast will be offered in three different models for in-person learning: they can receive the meal at the door, they can go down to the cafeteria to get something, or there will be a different point in the school building where they can pick up a breakfast and eat it in the classroom.

“Parents will have options for when school starts,” Benavidez said. There will be 21 distribution sites across the city for parents to pick up 10 pack meals (five breakfasts and five lunches) for the week for students who are learning remotely. They will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday from 10am to 6pm.

“Our goal is to constantly create that access to meals for our students,” Benavidez said. Meals are also available at no cost to every child in Boston under age 18—they do not have to be a BPS student to receive meals.

It’s an “open environment,” Benavidez said. “We want to make sure families feel welcome.” She added that BPS will be collaborating with YMCAs and BCYFs in the City as well, as they have received a grant to be able to provide groceries at the 21 sites as well to help out entire families.

Essaibi-George is a mother to four boys in BPS schools, so she wondered if thought had gone into how the meals would be packaged for ease of transport and storage once it is home.

Benavidez said that there has been “constant planning” for that factor. Some meals will be pre-plated, and for schools with fully equipped kitchens, meals will be packed on site. Meals will include shelf stable options as well as fresh and frozen options as well.

Additionally, Friday is “pizza Friday” in BPS schools, so Benavidez said they wanted to make sure that things like that are still available for kids to enjoy.

“We’re working with our parents and our vendors so we have the packaging that we need so it travels well,” she said;.

Another topic of discussion was the menu, and balancing exposing kids to foods that are familiar to them with some they might be unfamiliar with.

She said that feedback from kids about the menu is very important, as is having conversations with kids as they’re engaging with the choices offered. When there is only one or two options that are all packaged up, it doesn’t offer much of an availability for conversation, she said, but when a full spread is laid out with a salad bar, for example, or a choice of red or white sauce on pasta, there is more room for conversation with the kids about what they prefer.

Benavidez also said that kids have to try a specific food seven times before they can decide whether or not they like it, so BPS tries to include new foods several times to get a true reading of how the kids feel about it.

When asked about incorporating cultural foods into the menu, Benavidez said that “that’s what we’re constantly learning about.” She said that “pricing can be limiting” for buying certain food items for certain areas, but buying base items like rice and a protein like chicken or beef can be helpful because they can be turned into something that children recognize depending on how they are prepared.

“It’s not necessarily that they don’t like it,” she said, but “it could be that they don’t know it.”

Benavidez also said that they work hard to ensure proper portion size according to grade level, and offer a “rainbow” of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the week.

About 60 percent of a child’s daily caloric intake is provided by these breakfasts and lunches, and help to fuel students so they are better able to learn at school. 

“We are a major provider of food security for our kids,” Essaibi-George said.

Essaibi-George also wondered if there is potential to arrange for a virtual cooking class that could demonstrate a BPS meal being prepared, or to show families how to cook with the “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables.

“I love that idea,” Benavidez said. She said that there are three chefs who do training as My Way Cafe makes its way to more areas. She said they have a lot of experience and a virtual cooking class is definitely something BPS would consider once the new school year is underway.

Benavidez said that BPS is focused on making sure that healthy, nutritious meals continue to be provided to BPS students as the hybrid school year starts up shortly.

“We’re trying to be nimble and quick and creative to make sure…that whatever does happen, students or parents don’t feel the burden of that,” she said. “It’s up to us, making sure that children feel welcome and they’re ready. Their job is to be there and be ready to learn and we’re there to feed them and provide them that nutrition.”

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