In one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, dozens of brown-bag breakfasts and lunches went untouched Monday, the first of what is to be many days of schoolchildren being kept at home and their parents being out of work.

“It will pick up by Tuesday or Wednesday," said Tyne Robinson, a food service worker at Cramp Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where meals were being handed from behind a cracked door. "Word of mouth will get out.”

Cramp, at Mascher and Tioga Streets, is one of 30 sites in the city distributing free meals for children during the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused schools to shutter for at least two weeks. The School District normally provides breakfast and lunch for all students, given the number of Philadelphians living in poverty.

Spokesperson Monica Lewis said the district has made 30,000 meals available for students to pick up each day for breakfast and lunch. The meals are available between 9 a.m. and noon for any child age 18 or under. On Monday, students picked up 2,000 brown bags.

Community leaders worried that word of mouth is not enough to keep the large Spanish-speaking population informed. They asked the mayor for a spokesperson fluent in Spanish to provide updates about closures and services on the radio and conduct daily news conferences.

A spokesperson for the city said Philadelphia is making sure its services and information are available to everyone, regardless of language, by sharing news releases in Spanish to various media outlets and community leaders, as well as sharing social media posts with COVID-19 updates in Spanish. The city’s Office of Emergency Management ReadyAlert system is also sending text messages in Spanish.

From left, Jace Butler, 5, Mikai Warrick, 7, and Mikel Warrick, 7, take a close look at their meals on the steps of Tilden Middle School.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
From left, Jace Butler, 5, Mikai Warrick, 7, and Mikel Warrick, 7, take a close look at their meals on the steps of Tilden Middle School.

“A lot of people in this neighborhood don’t speak English, and they need more communication in Spanish," said Carmen Leon as she picked up breakfast and lunch bags for her 8-year-old granddaughter, noting that not everyone in her neighborhood has internet access. "I know [to come get meals] because I’m going on the internet, and I find out that this school had food for the children and everything. This is why I come here.

“But a lot of the people did not come.”

She grabbed the 30th of 150 meals that the school was prepared to hand out Monday, the first day of the district’s grab-and-go program. Only a few more lunches were distributed before noon, when the cafeteria closed for the day.

The meals are mostly nonperishable — breakfasts of cereal, milk, fruit juice, apple slices and graham crackers; lunches of crackers, sunflower butter, fruit, craisins, and juice.

No one other than school personnel was allowed inside the building.

Messaging from the mayor’s office in Spanish would help publicize what the city is doing to help, community leaders said.

“We respectfully ask you to have an official Spanish-speaking spokesperson, because it is one of the best ways to defeat rumors, false information and to protect people from scams that could harm the efforts of the city in containing this outbreak,” read the letter to Kenney from leaders of nine community nonprofits.

Rosalene Isaac with her niece Camila Rodriguez as they pick up lunches at Cramp Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Rosalene Isaac with her niece Camila Rodriguez as they pick up lunches at Cramp Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, said the nonprofit community is ready to help the administration spread the word, but can’t do so alone.

“The biggest safety thing is information,” he said. “Let us be your echo chamber.”

On Monday, Johanny Peralta took her two boys to pick up breakfast and lunch bags at Cramp. Neither child goes to school there, but since they live in the neighborhood they were welcome to the free meals.

Peralta, who doesn’t speak English, said she drives a bus for the School District and is out of work during the shutdown, which is aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. As she’s not sure whether she will get paid for her time, the free meal program helps.

“Being all day at home, they are eating every minute,” she said of sons Jeremy, 8, and Brian Jimenez, 14.

Peralta worries about her older one, who has a lung condition and is more vulnerable to infection.

“I’m just helping them with their homework and avoid going outside as much as possible,” she said.

The School District notified parents of the availability of the meals through robocalls in various languages and building principals, Lewis said. She said calls would continue this week.

At Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was intent on ensuring families knew free meals were available.

“We want to make sure we look at how we distribute, how many individuals come in to pick up these meals,” said Hite, standing with Mayor Jim Kenney among tables covered with paper bags of food. As of 10:30, about 40 bags had been picked up, Hite said.

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Albert Graham and Anitra Hyden grabbed a bag for their daughter, first grader Aljaya Graham. “We’re basically trying to make sure we don’t get affected,” Graham said, by “staying clean” and keeping their home scrubbed, and instructing Aljaya to wash her hands.

As for the two weeks of school closures ahead, Albert said, “We’ve just got to play it by ear.”

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents several predominantly Latino neighborhoods, said the Kenney administration needs to do a better job communicating in other languages. She said people are knocking on her door asking her if they have to close their business and what they should do.

Charito Morales, a neighborhood activist, said she and other volunteers with the group Philly Boricuas have been translating the city’s messages on closures and free meals into Spanish and distributing them among area Latinos.

“The city is not ready” in dealing with not just the pandemic but making sure the Spanish-speaking population knows what’s going on, she said. “This is a time for us to unify."

Morales, who helped paint the mural at Cramp Elementary and has long been involved in that neighborhood, said she has been calling block captains and making sure they are walking their blocks, knocking on people’s doors to check in.

“We found 10 people who didn’t have food or water so far,” Morales said. “They are elderly or supposed to have home-health aide supporting them but the person is off — didn’t have enough water or diapers. We supplied them for the moment.”

Liz Del Valle picked up meals Monday at Cramp with her 11-year-old daughter, Angeliz Rivera, by her side.

“These are benefits that belong to all the families and children in the community and we need to take advantage,” she said. “Every family should do the same thing because if they see that families don’t come here and get their lunches, they are going to think, ‘Where’s the need?’”

Leon, who works in the school lunchroom and has lived in the neighborhood for decades, said there is certainly a need.

“This is my preoccupation, porque a lot of the children only have breakfast and the lunch. Sometimes the children have nothing to eat" if they are not fed by the school. "More so in this neighborhood.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.