MESA, AZ — Arizona's largest school district is shutting down nearly half of its meal distribution sites over food supply and safety concerns. Fifty-six percent of students in Mesa Public Schools qualify for free or reduced meals and families say they will feel the impact.
They came with signs and words of thanks. Cars lining up for the final day of distribution at Porter Elementary School in Mesa.
"I live down the street," said Patricia Vargas, a mom of four.
"He enjoys the food and sometimes he'll run into a few friends here, he'll keep in touch with his teachers," said Jim Sana.
On Tuesday Mesa Public Schools announced its closing several locations, going from 55 to 29 sites and serving Monday, Wednesday and Friday only instead of five days a week. That change starts Monday, April 13, but some sites have already shut down unexpectedly.
"We are desperately trying to make sure we can keep this thing running because we know that parents and families are relying on it," said Scott Thompson, the district's assistant superintendent of business and support services.
Mesa Public Schools served more than 80,000 meals the first week of service. However, as distributors focus more on grocery stores and less on grab-and-go style packaged food, districts across the country are competing and making tough choices.
"We don't have the necessary supply of food in the pipeline that we need," said Thompson. "Balancing the safety of your employees and the amount of food you have available, against not having that available to our community."
Families say they too are feeling the strain.
"We took advantage of it right now because we go to the stores, in the past last weeks when there was like, not a lot of stuff on the stands, it was really hard for us going store to store trying to find something," said Vargas.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education says they aren't aware of schools competing with one another for supplies.
He provided the following statement:
"During the COVID-19 crisis we know school districts are faced with making difficult decisions, such as balancing the basic needs of the students with the safety needs of staff. The Arizona Department ofEducation’s Health and Nutrition team continues to offer assistance to schools in navigating these decisions. Health and Nutrition staff are in communication with food distributors and have been assured these distributors are doing their best to keep up with the demand for single item, pre-packaged products. Additionally, our food distribution partners continue to have a variety of available foods for schools to utilize that are not pre-packaged. When a district makes the difficult decision to close meal sites, families can utilize the AZ Healthzone Summer Food map to find another operational meal locations. The Health and Nutrition team ensures the map is updated at least three times per week.
Additionally the Arizona Department of Education and the Department of Economic Security have worked together to ensure families with school age children (4 – 18 years old) that qualify for free school meals receive additional SNAP benefits. While schools are closed, the extra funds equate to the cost of a school breakfast and lunch for the month and the families will see an increase in benefits beginning in April."
Click here for a full list of the district's updated serving locations, days and times.