Kids’ Meals, headquartered on Garden Oaks Boulevard, normally delivers about 3,000 free meals per day to children under the age of 6 as well as to their school-aged siblings.
On Monday, they did 7,000.
“Every day is a new day,” said Cynthia Stielow, Kids’ Meals director of development and communications. “We are learning as we go. This is uncharted territory as of right now.”
Stielow said already-struggling families have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kids’ Meals serves 43 zip codes in the Houston area.
“The families we are already supporting are the exact families who have lost their jobs,” Stielow said. “Those in housekeeping and hospitality have been temporarily laid off.”
With the closure of Houston ISD’s food distribution sites last week after possible COVID-19 exposure at a location in Southwest Houston, there is even more of a demand for delivered food. Stielow said up to 48 percent of clients don’t have transportation and cannot visit the City of Houston’s 50 food distribution sites.
“Others said they waited in line and used up their gas money,” Stielow said.
For many families, the nearest food source is a dollar store or gas station.
“They buy what is going to stretch,” Stielow said.
The 125 percent increase in applications for help are stretching the resources of an organization that has gotten good over the years of making the most of what it has. But COVID-19 is a unique challenge.
To meet the need for lunches, Kids’ Meals is dipping into the reserves that it normally utilizes only when a volunteer group cancels. Pepperidge Farm is one of its partners, but Kids’ Meals can’t get bread for its sandwiches because bread is seldom available on supermarket shelves at this time.
A donation of 6,000 hamburger buns from the pocket of a local McDonald’s franchise owner is allowing Kids’ Meals to make sandwiches this week.
Bright spots are partners H-E-B, which is delivering lunch packs to Kids’ Meals this week, and the Houston Food Bank, where Kids’ Meals now gets 50 percent of its food.
Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, said the bank and its partners provide essential services throughout the year and also during times of emergency.
“The population that we serve, almost by definition, does not have reserves of food in the event of service disruptions or closures,” Greene said. “As the COVID-19 situation has developed, demand for food assistance has significantly increased, for us and for the agencies out on the frontlines. We are working hard to keep a steady flow of food coming into and distributing out of the warehouse, with the support of donations from the generous community and companies.”
In addition to the lunch deliveries, Kids’ Meals also brings grocery bags with whatever is most available – everything from carrots, onions, potatoes, beets and bananas to bags of rice, beans and pasta.
With the work, Stielow said there is a big focus on safety, both with the food preparation and delivery. Ample hand sanitizer and gloves are on hand.
“We are cleaning ferociously,” Stielow said.
Where there were once 50 people in a room making meals, there are now only a handful who work much longer shifts.
Kids’ Meals is still seeking volunteer drivers who carry a letter stating they are essential employees. If they want to wear a mask, one is provided. Stielow said they are currently working on better methods of delivery with minimal to no contact.
As for staff, they are on an A and B rotation to cut down on who is in the office, so if there is a COVID-19 infection in-house, it would theoretically only impact half the staff.
“We’ve never had all these people work remotely, (and) we’re also taking care of our own kids,” Stielow said.
For those who want to help, Stielow said money donations are the optimal choice because it allows Kids’ Meals to leverage its buying power. For $2, it can make and deliver a meal to a child, so $25 goes a long way.
With the announcement on Tuesday that Texas schools will be closed until at least May 4, Kids’ Meals, already at capacity, will continue to feed Houston’s schoolchildren. Stielow acknowledges the risks but also the overwhelming need.
“There’s 100 percent chance these kids are going to be hungry,” Stielow said. “We’re mentally preparing that this is going to be going on until August.”