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A family arrives and Rev. Brad Laurvick, second from left, a Denver Public Schools board board member, helps hand out breakfast bags at Cowell Elementary School. The food service staff and others from Denver Public Schools gather at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. The free meals, which also include lunch from 12-1 p.m., will be available at 11 school locations in the Denver area through April 3, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Cowell Elementary School’s classrooms stood empty on Monday while its playground lacked the typical bursts of boisterous activity. The school’s kitchen, however, was humming as school staff prepared row after row of bagged meals for families struggling to cope with school closures.


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Classrooms across Denver Public Schools will remain dark for the next three weeks as the new coronavirus continues to spread — the district extended its spring break by two weeks so that students will return on April 7 — but not all schools will shut their doors altogether.

Twelve schools are hosting grab-and-go meal stations, offering free breakfast and lunch every weekday to students and, really, anyone in need of food.

Each school is prepared to serve 500 breakfasts and 500 lunches per day, said Theresa Hafner, the district’s executive director of food services.

To feed adults, the Denver Public Schools Foundation on Friday created a food security fund just ahead of schools closing. Since then, the fund has generated more than 500 donations from individuals and organizations — donations that will help the district provide food for adults as well as for families over the weekends, marketing and communications director Ashley Muramoto said.

Verónica Figoli, president and chief executive officer of the Denver Public Schools Foundation, recognizes how much families are going to be stretched as some may lose their jobs or see their wages cut while also facing high costs for groceries.

Da’vida Jones, 7, and her mom Jewel Lankster, left, are some of the first to arrive to collect a free breakfast at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This is all part of making sure that our families are a little bit more stable during this very unsettling time,” Figoli said.

She pointed out that for all the anxiety the coronavirus, known formally as COVID-19, has stirred up among people with access and money, it’s created even more stress for families lacking both.

The foundation hopes to serve about 1,000 adults per day, which shouldn’t be too difficult for the district to manage, considering it feeds breakfast to about 35,000 students and lunch to about 50,000 students each school day, Hafner said.

As his principal, Shayley Levensalor, left, watches, Elijah Kirkland, 7, arrives with his older siblings and along with their breakfast bags at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still, the district needs funding to provide meals for adults. DPS is reimbursed for qualifying meals served to kids by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hafner said, but does not receive reimbursement for meals served to adults.

“It’s part of taking care of the community,” Hafner said.

Making ends meet with help from district meals

Hafner worries about children going hungry while schools remain closed.

“Without the schools open, that need doesn’t go away,” Hafner said.

About two-thirds of the about 92,000 students enrolled in DPS schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, according to Winna MacLaren, media relations manager for the district.

Da’vida Jones, 7, arrives at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At Cowell Elementary, 94% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, said Principal Shayley Levensalor.

“Food insecurity is always a real challenge in our school communities and especially during this crisis the idea that we’re still able to serve free lunch and breakfast is something that’s really invaluable for all of our families,” Levensalor said.

Both the principal and DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova were on hand at Cowell Elementary on Monday morning to greet students and families stopping by for breakfast, which included cereal, an apple and milk.

Lunches featured a choice of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or turkey and cheese sandwiches, along with milk. The meals, Hafner said, abide by the USDA’s nutrition guidelines.

Rev. Brad Laurvick, a Denver Public Schools board member, hands several breakfast bags to a family. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

On a regular school day at Cowell Elementary, the kitchen bustles with food preparation as staff ready to serve about 250 breakfasts and at least 275 lunches to students. That’s in addition to feeding 117 students each day through the west Denver school’s snack program, and almost 400 students and school employees through its fruit and vegetable program on Tuesdays through Fridays, cafeteria manager Cindy Barela said.

Cordova said that as soon as the district started talking about extending its spring break, it wanted to ensure options would be available for students to have access to breakfast and lunch. DPS is working with the City of Denver to offer dinners for families as well, she said.

The superintendent said she understands how significant an issue food instability is for many Denver families, but she said the school closures were needed to do everything possible to help with social distancing.

Cafeteria manager Cindy Barela, left, and food service worker Candy Roybal, transport the nearly 350 breakfast bags on a cart to be given away at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denve. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“As you listen to the news around the world, it’s a very real crisis and we want to do our part to help slow that down,” Cordova said.

It’s also leading to a very real crisis at the kitchen table for families like those of Edwin Navarro, a sixth-grader who attends STRIVE Prep and has twin siblings who attend Cowell Elementary. Navarro accompanied his mother, brother and sister to the school early Monday afternoon to pick up lunch.

Navarro’s family plans to continue taking part in the district’s meal giveaways, particularly as his mother, Lidia Yam, a cook at a local Japanese restaurant, stays home from work as the restaurant scales back its operations to takeout orders.

Da’vida Jones, 7, and her mom Jewel Lankster, are some of the first to arrive to collect a free breakfast at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His father, Manuel Navarro, cooks for a different Japanese restaurant and is still working, which will help the family make ends meet.

Still, it will be a struggle. The family has one more paycheck to rely on, but isn’t sure how to get by while the coronavirus threatens their livelihood.

“We don’t really know what to do,” Navarro said.

The 11-year-old also worries about the disease as it continues to spread, comparing the current climate to “an apocalypse.”

One source of support is the food he’ll be able to count on from DPS. “At least they’re offering us some breakfast or lunch,” he said.

Food Service worker Dolores Estrada places several of the nearly 350 breakfast bags on a cart to be given away at Cowell Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition to Cowell Elementary, located at 4540 W. 10th Ave., Denver Public Schools is serving free breakfast and lunch meals at: 

  • Bruce Randolph School, 3955 Steele St.
  • Abraham Lincoln High School, 2285 S. Federal Blvd.
  • The Evie Dennis campus, 4800 Telluride St.
  • Denver Center for International Studies Baker, 574 W. 6th Ave. 
  • Manual High School, 1700 E. 28th Ave.
  • The Montbello campus, 5000 Crown Blvd.
  • North High School, 2960 Speer Blvd.
  • Place Bridge Academy, 7125 Cherry Creek N. Drive
  • Joe Shoemaker School, 3333 S. Havana St.
  • STRIVE Prep — Sunnyside, 4735 N. Pecos St.
  • Valverde Elementary School, 2030 W. Alameda Ave.

    Breakfast will be served at each school from 8-9 a.m. Lunch will be handed out from noon to 1 p.m.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...