Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been no shortage of people and industries that have had to pivot to accommodate these unprecedented circumstances. Schools are one of the sectors that have needed extreme flexibility.
From in-person to distanced to hybrid learning — or some combination of the three — schools have had to figure out how to safely and effectively educate. And with so many children relying on school meals as their main source of nutrition, they’ve needed to find ways to safely continue to feed them, too.
The Life Time Foundation, the nonprofit and charitable arm of Life Time, has partnered with school districts across the United States since 2011 to help provide nourishing meals to students. Their primary efforts surround removing ingredients of concern— known as the “Harmful 7” — from school meals.
While that’s still very much the mission of the Life Time Foundation, the organization saw new needs arise from their district partners this year. So, like many of us, it pivoted to direct its time and funds to where it’s currently needed most.
We spoke with Valeria La Rosa, senior program manager for the Life Time Foundation, to learn how the organization is continuing to support schools and students through this time.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed how you’re supporting your partner school districts?
School food professionals are facing an urgent challenge, and, admirably, it’s one they’ve taken on without hesitation. They continue to feed children through the unknowns of this pandemic, inventing new and creative ways to do so.
At the Life Time Foundation, we’re still firmly committed to our mission of eliminating the Harmful 7 from school meals. However, we are temporarily refocusing our efforts to provide our partners with funding for the essential supplies they need to safely continue serving students.
We have been able to give financial support to 35 partner across the United States. By the end of this year, we will have provided around $350,000 in COVID-19 Assistance School Grants. We’re ready to give more in 2021, and are listening to and collaborating with our partners to understand the constant changes to school food service that they’re facing. We want to ensure that the nearly 10 years of progress we’ve made continues beyond the pandemic.
In April 2020, the Life Time Foundation launched the COVID-19 Assistance School Grants program. Why was that an immediate effort?
Thirty million children eat school meals each day. Twenty-two million children rely on them. That’s why when schools closed due to the pandemic, school food professionals decided to continue serving meals. However, they now had to figure out how to do so safely while preventing the spread of COVID-19. This meant that districts needed new types of equipment and items they did not have a budget for, including masks, gloves, sanitizing supplies, thermometers, and more.
With students staying home near the start of the pandemic, meal participation decreased and expenses increased, causing most school nutrition programs to go in the red. We reached out to our district partners and offered funds to cover a portion of their COVID-19-related purchases so they could safely continue to serve kids.
How has your work with school lunch programs been impacted?
Our school food professional partners have had to rethink the way they feed kids to ensure it’s safe. They have also encountered new challenges, such as a lack of personal protective and safety equipment, delayed food delivery, and unavailable or overpriced high-demand food items.
Our district partners have stayed committed to the nutrition philosophy, even when procurement got much more difficult. When speaking about meal quality and integrity, several directors have told us, “a pandemic won’t stop us.” They’re ensuring that each lunch contains a vegetable, fruit, protein, grain, and milk.
Many districts have been forced to serve individually wrapped foods to avoid food handling, which is a shift from the scratch or speed-scratch cooking they were doing previously. To help those districts choose the highest quality items possible, we provided them with a database of products free of the Harmful 7. We’ve also worked with a chef who consults with school nutrition programs to help increase scratch cooking. He utilizes Harmful 7-free products from that database to create breakfast- and lunch-menu concepts.
Our hope is that our grants help our district partners be in a better financial situation so it’s easier for them to get back to serving more fresh, scratch, and speed-scratch meals that are free of the Harmful 7.
The Life Time Foundation recently funded a $1 million grant that will benefit the more than 1.1 million students served by the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE). Can you tell us about that partnership?
We are thrilled to announce our partnership with the New York City Department of Education! Through this $1 million grant we will be collaborating with the Office of School Nutrition to accelerate scratch-cooking techniques and the preparation of clean, wholesome, and simply prepared foods, while also working to eliminate the Harmful 7 categories of ingredients in all of the district’s schools. It’s our honor to join the district’s efforts to give over 1.1 million students access to the best possible meals.
The Life Time Foundation found a unique way to partner with athletes after many endurance races were canceled this year. What did those efforts look like?
Because Life Time owns and produces more than 30 premier marathons, triathlons, and cycling races, we had a unique chance to take some of these canceled events and turn them into a philanthropic opportunity to benefit children and their families in need by supporting our school district partners.
Athletes from nine of Life Time’s signature events were given the choice to donate their already-paid entry fees to the Life Time Foundation. Life Time also created the Leadville 100,000-Foot Challenge, a virtual event to replace the Leadville Race Series that usually occurs in mid-August. All of the proceeds from that event were donated to the Foundation. As a result of the two initiatives, a total of $320,036 has been raised for the Life Time Foundation as of September 1, 2020.
How are donations to the Life Time Foundation used?
Unlike many other charitable organizations, 100 percent of every dollar donated to the Life Time Foundation directly supports its mission, because all administrative costs are contributed by Life Time.
Currently, all donations support our COVID-19 Assistance School Grants program, providing schools with the essential supplies required to safely feed children in need. All donations support the school districts listed on our COVID-19 Support page.
If someone is interested in donating to the Life Time Foundation, how can they do so?
You can visit give.ltfoundation.org/schools to donate and to help school food professionals continue to feed children safely.