Most years, North East Independent School District does not provide meals for students over the holiday breaks. But this Thanksgiving, the district is preparing around 2,300 packages with five days’ worth of food to distribute to students.

“This is new for us,” said Sharon Glosson, executive director of nutrition at NEISD. “This is the first year that we’ve been able to get government reimbursement for meals during the holiday break.”

Schools that began supplying meals to students after the coronavirus pandemic shut down campuses in March have continued to feed their students as some have returned to campus and others learn from home.

On Tuesday, children 18 years old and younger can pick up a meal package between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at 14 of NEISD’s middle schools. The meals consist of typical school lunch fare: cereal for breakfast, sandwiches and pizza for dinner. Each package comes with a gallon of milk. 

The meal packages will be given to anyone 18 or younger who resides within the district, whether they are enrolled in an NEISD school or not. The district had more than 64,000 students enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year, 49.5 percent of whom were classified as economically disadvantaged. Parents can pick up food for their children without them being in the car, as long as they prove the child’s age with some form of documentation, Glosson said.

She estimated that the school district would have about 35,000 meals prepared and distributed for the Thanksgiving break when schools are closed for the week.

“We came to that number based on our history with these distribution sites, because we’ve been distributing meals at these sites now for many months and getting a feel for the community in each area,” Glosson said. “We decided how many meals we thought would be picked up, but then we also took into account the storage space, especially for the cold storage because that is the most difficult thing – how many gallons of milk can we store?”

San Antonio ISD also is providing meals over the holiday break for the first time. SAISD is preparing more than 7,000 meal packages for students and area children, with enough food for seven days. Jenny Arredondo, the district’s senior executive director of child nutrition services, said the food would not include traditional Thanksgiving fare, as the purpose of the program is not to have holiday-centered foods.

“We are providing school meals to cover the holiday week to prevent our kiddos from being without school food during the district closure,” she said.

As with NEISD, meal package pickup is available to all children 18 years and younger in the school district area, Arredondo said. But SAISD also has partnered with the district’s bus drivers to visit different bus stops within the district’s boundaries to deliver food to families who might not be able to pick it up from one of the district’s 40 campuses.

“We did an order form so we’d know how many [meal packages] per location,” Arredondo said.

Grace Menchaca hands off a box of food for the Thanksgiving holiday to Ramiro Sanchez at Edison High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Not all school districts will be providing meals over the holiday break. Northside ISD, for example, will continue curbside pickup meals for area children on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at three campuses. But meal pickup won’t be available on Thanksgiving Day or the day after. Northside is the largest school district in Bexar County, with more than 102,000 students enrolled. It reported 47.8 percent of its student population as economically disadvantaged during the 2019-2020 school year.

Harlandale ISD, which is 89.2 percent economically disadvantaged, will not serve any meals during the break, spokeswoman Mariana Veraza said. The child nutrition staff has provided grab-and-go meals for students and in-person meal service during school days, Veraza said.

“As with other district staff, Thanksgiving is a week to not only give thanks but a chance for all staff to recover and rejuvenate from the difficult beginnings of the school year,” Veraza said in an email. “Like our other staff, the [child nutrition] ladies and gentlemen look forward to this period as well.”

Southside ISD – which reported fewer than 6,000 students enrolled during the 2019-2020 school year, 85.4 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged – was scheduled to serve meals until Nov. 22 and will resume meal service on the Monday after Thanksgiving. But the school district still wants to help students who might need food assistance during the break.

Southside ISD partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank to hold a food distribution for families on Nov. 14 and will hold another on Saturday, Nov. 28, according to district spokesman Randy Escamilla. “Each distribution provides enough food for about 2,600 people,” he said.

Student meals have always been a top priority for school districts, and the need has grown since the pandemic began. The SAISD budget alone allocates $23 million a year to make sure students get breakfast, lunch, and supper, Arredondo said. When so many are learning remotely that can be challenging, but SAISD has worked to fill the need with a combination of curbside pickup, school bus-delivered food, and in-person meal service for students attending schools in person, Arredondo said.

“Gosh, we’d love to have them all back,” Arredondo said. “But we’ve got to ride this wave.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.