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Schools are closed amid firestorms, but campus kitchens stay open

Schools are closed amid firestorms, but campus kitchens stay open
Brothers Daniel and Aaron Ramirez carry food provided Saturday to families at Reseda High. Many families depend on school meals, which were disrupted when area fires led to school closures. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When L.A. Unified closed 265 schools because of area fires, meals were sacrificed as well as academics.

About 80% of district students are from low-income families, and many depend on schools for breakfast, lunch and — in some cases — dinner.

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The nation’s second-largest school system responded by designating three San Fernando Valley schools as areas where students and area families could pick up food Friday and Saturday. Many campuses that were unaffected by the firestorms stood by through Friday to provide dinners to students who stopped by within 10 minutes of the close of school.

Though the participation was not overwhelming, word did get out for some who needed help. At Reseda High in the San Fernando Valley, workers and volunteers handed out about 100 meals Friday and 270 on Saturday.

“This was one way we could demonstrate our care for the students,” Acting Supt. Vivian Ekchian said. If families wanted to take a few extra meals, that was OK, too, she said.

Judith Castillo, for one, appreciated the gesture.

“The school had people telling everyone down the street,” said Castillo, who came by with her two boys, ages 3 and 18 months. “I think it’s great. It’s a little bit, maybe, but it helps out.”

The most direct effect of the fires on her family was the bad air, Castillo said. Both boys had recurring bloody noses and coughs.

“I have ashes in front of my door,” she said. “It’s disgusting, but we’re safe, thank god.”

The food trays at Reseda High were assembled with shelf life and nutrition in mind: dragon-fruit punch, raisins, bananas, sunflower kernels, whole-grain cinnamon graham crackers, sunflower seed butter (which is like peanut butter) and fat-free chocolate milk.

Castillo said her boys had never tried sunflower seed butter, and they liked it.

Around midday, one family used the district food trays to put together a 10-year-old’s birthday party on school grounds.

Normally, the school serves about 450 lunches. But on Tuesday and Wednesday, with students forced to remain in classrooms, the tally rose to 1,500 per day, Reseda High Principal Melanie Welsh said.

The takeaway, she concluded, was that if the food turns up where the students are, they’ll eat it.

Welsh said she was going to try bringing food carts to the areas of campus where students like to hang out during lunch.

“They liked the food,” she said. “They didn’t just eat it. They asked for more.”

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L.A. Unified has experience helping displaced families. About 17,000 students were homeless for at least part of last year. And the district serves 80,000 dinners to students who grab them at the end of the school day.

On Tuesday, fire officials ordered the first 14 campuses closed after the school day had started. Most of them already were on a modified lockdown because of the air quality, keeping students inside except when absolutely necessary.

Some parents reported confusion as they tried to pick up students who were being put on buses for a ride to a school that was remaining open. Once there, students often had to wait in gyms till their parents arrived. According to a few parents, one entire classroom was left behind for a time when Mt. Gleason Middle School in Tujunga was told to shut down.

By Wednesday morning, 65 schools were closed and the district expanded the number by 200 more for Thursday and Friday.

Ekchian said the district planned to review what happened at each school to refine emergency plans, and that overworked filters on heating and air conditioning units were being cleaned or replaced.

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