With cafeterias closed, Nutrition Services finds innovative ways to feed students

A group of Windswept Gardens Apartments residents made their way through the complex’s tree-lined central courtyard, which sits just a few hundred yards from the speeding cars and unending traffic of the Southwest Freeway.

Clad in face masks and carefully keeping their distance from each other, the families gathered around a blue tent where HISD’s Nutrition Services staff were handing out student summer meals in the afternoon sun.

The district has long offered a free summer meal program for students throughout the greater Houston community. In previous years, children would come to local schools to eat. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed the game, prompting Nutrition Services to look for innovative and safe ways to feed kids without a cafeteria.

“We had to figure out a way to get food into these homes so we can continue to take care of the kids,” Nutrition Services Officer Betti Wiggins said.

The department leaned heavily on a curbside pickup model that allowed students and parents to safety come get days’ worth of meals at one time. But that wasn’t reaching everyone — especially Houston’s historically underserved communities.

Enter the summer meal apartment complex delivery program, which brings a weeks’ worth of breakfast and lunch meals directly to families in select apartment complexes with large concentrations of students. Windswept Gardens Apartments is among them.

Typically, school nutrition staff handle the summer meals program. But this summer Houston Eats, the catering arm of Nutrition Services, has been tapped to handle apartment complex deliveries.

“We’re helping out everyone,” Houston Eats Driver Sharon Roberts said. “We just want to be here for them and for the kids.”

Wiggins points out that feeding the community during a pandemic is an all-hands-on-deck effort. With cafeteria staff focused on packing and serving curbside meals, the department quickly turned to the catering team for help.

“We said “Hey Houston Eats Catering! You guys have got trucks. You have the skills. Let’s go,’” Wiggins said. “Houston Eats has retooled themselves to be onsite caterers for our children, and I think that’s fantastic.”

The HISD summer meals program — and accompanying apartment complex delivery program — concludes Aug. 28, allowing Nutrition Services time to transition to the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs offered during the school year. Curbside pick-up will continue to be offered for students who opt for virtual learning during the 2020-2021 school year.