During the third week of meal distribution in Memphis while school is out because of the coronavirus, food pickups have increased by nearly 50%.

Last week, the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South distributed an average of 5,600 lunches per day. On the first two days of this week, the daily average increased to 8,250. Shelby County Schools is closed until further notice and enrolls about 113,000 students, most of whom live in poverty.

“As parents are finding out about it more and more are coming out,” school board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman said by phone from a meal distribution site Wednesday. “It’s a need and we’re doing all we can to supply the need.”

The sudden uptick comes as pandemic-related layoffs increase and as YMCA leaders adjust to meet the needs of Memphis families with limited transportation. Some low-income families depended on school meals before the crisis and now have more reason to turn to the school system for help, district leaders said. Districts nationwide have been opening meal distribution during school closures.

The YMCA took over meal distribution from Shelby County Schools more than two weeks ago after a district nutrition services employee tested positive for COVID-19 — just three days before distribution was set to begin. It’s possible that the Memphis district will again lead food distribution now that the initial food safety threat has passed, but no decisions have been made, a district spokeswoman said.

Memphis schools are closed until further notice. Here are food resources to fill in the gap.

Look up the closest food distribution site to you by texting MEALS to 901-701-6777 or by entering your cell phone number below.

Envíe COMIDAS a 901-701-6777 para mas informacion sobre servicios de comida disponible para familias con niños.

During the first two days of food distribution the week of March 23, lunches were in paper bags. By the third day, Chartwells, the food vendor and caterer for the University of Memphis, took over meal preparation, and provided lunches in styrofoam containers. While taxpayer dollars pay for the meals, the transportation and labor are paid by private donors.

“This is something we couldn’t have done as a district alone. I’m grateful to see so many people join,” said Althea Greene, a school board member. Greene, who also owns a catering business, noted at the 20 sites she has visited, the food quality vastly improved after Chartwells started preparing the food.

Brian McLaughlin, the YMCA’s chief operating officer, said staff have been relying on neighborhood organizations and churches to get the word out about the meal sites and have also delivered to apartment complexes that nonprofits work with to connect residents to aid.

School board member Althea Greene visits a lunch distribution site during the first week.
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Althea Greene

Key changes early on in meal distribution led to reaching many more families, McLaughlin said. For example, one food pickup site in a library parking lot had just four families come the first few days. The library was across a busy street from an apartment complex. Staff learned that although a school child must be present for a family to receive meals, many parents worried about walking their children across the heavy traffic. So the YMCA moved the site across the street to the apartment complex and hundreds of families came. The YMCA also removed the requirement that families could only take one meal per child, thanks to a state waiver, McLaughlin said.

“We’re preparing about 10,000 meals a day, but we have always been aiming to ramp up to 15,000 a day and we’ll be there very shortly,” he said.

Citywide, food distribution has increased as people lost jobs because business has drastically declined while residents have complied with a stay-at-home order to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The Mid-South Food Bank’s food distribution has nearly doubled: 2.2 million pounds of food last month compared with 1.3 million pounds in March 2019, said Andrew Bell, the organization’s spokesperson. Bell expects demand to continue to surge as unemployment rates increase and stigma decreases for seeking help.

“There’s no embarrassment or shame because everyone can point the finger at the virus,” he said.

On Wednesday, the food bank’s distribution of two weeks worth of groceries held at the district’s central office prompted long lines starting at 6 a.m., Superintendent Joris Ray said. Former Memphis Grizzlies basketball player Zach Randolph donated $10,000 toward the effort.

“We want to be where no child, no adult is hungry,” Dorse-Coleman said.