Worried about food during the COVID-19 crisis? Berkeley Unified, local pantries offer free meals

A food worker puts on gloves in front of a container of vegetables and noodles
Samantha Ortega gloves up to prepare free meals for youth in Berkeley. BUSD is among several organizations providing free food locally. Photo: Trish McDermott

The closure of Berkeley schools has not been easy on parents, who either have to make tough financial and childcare decisions or figure out endless ways to entertain and educate antsy kids.

One thing they don’t have to worry is making sure their kids have something to eat during these long days. Berkeley Unified has been serving free meals — takeout, of course — to any child age 18 or under. The breakfasts and lunches are not restricted to children who typically qualify for free or reduced-price meals, or even to children who attend BUSD schools. The district ran a similar program over the summer.

The BUSD meals are available at several school locations throughout the city. This week they’re being served once a day, every weekday, between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Next week, the sites will only be open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but will provide multiple meals at a time to cover the off-days, according to the district. On Friday, March 27, recipients can pick up frozen meals to cover the entirety of spring break, BUSD said. (The schedule has changed multiple times, so check the BUSD site for the latest.)

To pick up breakfast and lunch, parents (or high-schoolers) drive up to a school site and receive a set of meals based on the number of children present in the car.


Where to pick up meals:

  • Berkeley High School, in the breezeway on Milvia Street near Kittredge Street
  • King Middle School, Grant Street near Rose Street. Drive all the way up Grant, onto the basketball court
  • Longfellow Middle School, 1522 Ward St.
  • Willard Middle School, 2425 Stuart St.
  • Rosa Parks Elementary School, 920 Allston Way, under the portico
  • Berkeley Arts Magnet, 2015 Virginia St.

The meal program started almost immediately after BUSD leaders made a sudden decision to close campuses last Thursday evening. The new shelter-in-place order reaffirmed that school meal programs are considered “essential” and can continue, provided staff comply with social distancing guidance.

“Nutrition services are an essential part of the district’s operations, whether or not classes are in place during the shutdown,” said Trish McDermott, BUSD spokeswoman. “Many students in Berkeley rely on their schools to receive breakfast or lunch.”

A woman, dressed in black and with gloves on, stands in front of a cart holding a number of brown bagged meals
Catherine Alexander hands out bagged meals at King Middle School. Photo: Trish McDermott
Rows of boxes with chicken and vegetables
For lunch Monday: roast chicken and veggies. Photo: Trish McDermott

On Tuesday, BUSD served 150 breakfasts and 260 lunches, but Bonnie Christensen, director of nutrition services, said in an email that she expects the demand to ramp up.

Subscribe to the Daily Briefing

Don't miss a story. Get Berkeleyside headlines delivered to your inbox.

McDermott said she visited the district’s central kitchen at King Middle School on Monday and found staff standing the requisite six or more feet apart, preparing chicken and broccoli.

“The nutrient team has been great, just showing up and doing this work,” she said. The district has heard from a number of employees and community members offering to volunteer for the program. (The shelter-in-place order could limit the jobs they’re allowed to do, however.)

Christensen said the department is taking precautions to keep both the cooks and the kids safe.

“I am having staff work in short shifts so there is less ‘crowding,'” she wrote. “There are no students here so we can really spread out in the central kitchen to ensure folks maintain some distance as they prep and package meals. Anyone not feeling well is required to stay home.”

Students pick up items from UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Pantry. The pantry will be closed next week for spring break. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley Food Network is also planning to provide free groceries for families at the BUSD school pick-up sites. Executive Director Sara Webber said she’s working on finalizing the schedule.

Children are not the only ones who can access free meals in Berkeley while isolation orders are in effect.

A number of Berkeley organizations are also distributing free meals and pantry items to local residents (check the Berkeley Food Network site for updates):

  • The Berkeley Food Network pantry, 1925 Ninth St. The pantry is open to Berkeley and Albany residents 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5-7 p.m., Monday and Wednesday; and 10 a.m.-noon, first and third Saturdays.
  • Berkeley Food Pantry, 1600 Sacramento St. The pantry is open 2-4 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Residents can also confirm online whether they are eligible to receive CalFresh benefits.

Natalie Orenstein is a reporter at Berkeleyside. Email: natalie@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: nat_orenstein.