A little boy in an orange shirt walks up to a grab-and-go meal site at an elementary school in Salt Lake City, Utah. A school worker wearing a mask uses a bullhorn to let kitchen staff know the boy's there. Then a staffer sets a bag lunch and some extra strawberries on a table and backs away.
"That was quick!" the boy says.
He has no idea. School lunch programs across the country had to quickly pivot when COVID-19 hit.
"We have to change our menu and go from a hot menu to a grab-and-go menu overnight – literally overnight," says Dana Adams, director of nutrition at the Granite School District in Salt Lake.
Administrators like Adams credit the U.S. Department of Agriculture for granting its nutrition programs significant flexibility in adapting to the crisis. While some federal agencies are under fire for their slow response to the COVID-19 crisis, some USDA programs stand out for being relatively nimble in getting food aid to at-risk families and school children.
Normally, only some students get free or reduced-price meals. But now, as Adams says, "All children 18 and under are able to get breakfast and lunch free at any of our sites."
Not every family is able to take time out of the day to go pick up meals. So the agency launched its Pandemic EBT program, which provides grocery money for the families of students who normally qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Anya Rose is with the non-profit Hunger Free Colorado. She says the USDA also opened up online grocery shopping using SNAP, better known as food stamps, and authorized all households on that program to receive the maximum possible benefits.
"It's brought a lot more SNAP dollars into household food budgets and into states to help with economic recovery," Rose says.
Anti-hunger advocates say these flexibilities make sense and that the need for food assistance is enormous right now.
"We've never seen this many people need it at one time," says Stacy Dean, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "We usually move into a recession much more slowly than this."
Dean says she's witnessed the USDA's quick response in past emergencies like natural disasters, where the agency has helped with moving commodities, relaxing administrative rules and setting up local disaster food programs.
"They have experience amongst their own staff and working cooperatively with states," says Dean. "They have muscle on this, and that helps."
That said, all these new initiatives aren't problem-free, as Rose points out. For example, the new Pandemic EBT program requires families, schools, state agencies and the federal government to be coordinating with one another, which can cause administrative headaches.
"[States] aren't receiving extra administrative funding, and they're basically implementing new programs and processes left and right," Rose says.
And those slowdowns can have consequences: Some families are not getting the food they need quickly enough.
But disabled SNAP recipient Refugio Venegas of Westminster, Colorado, is among the beneficiaries of the USDA's COVID-19 response. He says he received about $200 more in SNAP benefits this month.
Venegas has kidney disease and dietary restrictions. Normally, he says, he can't afford the kind of food he's supposed to eat, and the boost in benefits helps.
"That actually means I can buy at least a half a cart of food now," he says. "I can afford meat, I can afford milk, cheese, vegetables and all that kind of stuff."
The USDA is extending those extra food dollars for most SNAP recipients into June.
In Salt Lake City, the Granite School District has been able to provide about 30,000 grab-and-go meals a day. That's about half the number they'd serve for all students if school was in session.
For Dana Adams, the program allows the district to "take care of those kids [for whom] the only meal they get may be when they're in school, and with school suddenly gone, we wanted to make sure that we took care of those kids."
But there's another reason why the program's vital, she says. All students have had their lives upended by the pandemic, and that daily ritual of picking up a meal, and waving to kitchen staff, is one small bit of consistency they can rely on.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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