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Even during a pandemic, USC program makes sure neighborhood kids are fed

USC’s venerable pre-K program provides a nutritious breakfast and lunch for local children, even when they’re stuck at home.

meals for local children USC Head Start
Parents with children in USC‘s Head Start program pick up breakfast and lunch at the University Park Child Development Center. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

The kids who normally attend USC’s Head Start program are now home with their families, isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every weekday morning, though, a little bit of Head Start comes to them.

The pre-K program, a part of the School for Early Childhood Education, is making sure no local child goes without a nutritious, warm breakfast and lunch, even during a global crisis. They’re distributed every morning at three locations near USC campuses and delivered to families who don’t have access to transportation.

“This is our mission: to serve our community,” said Theda Douglas, associate senior vice president in University Relations. “Sometimes when the kids come in, they’ll talk about how they miss their teacher. We keep our social distance, but we provide a sense of calming continuity.”

Thanks to USC, local children still receive two meals a day

USC head start meals for local children

Alicia Solorzano, left and Leslee Villeda prepare meals to help the community at USC’s School for Early Childhood Education. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

On a brisk morning, parents with young children in tow come to the University Park Child Development Center to pick up breakfast and lunch. Inside, food preparation and packaging has been going since before 7 a.m.

“There are so many families in need,” said Leslee Villeda, who works preparing and packaging the meals for children. “They’re coming over and they’re grateful.”

Villeda and her coworkers make sure each meal includes protein, carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, along with dessert and milk. Separate meals are packed for children with food allergies, and Friday’s packages include meals for Saturday.

Jessica Lucero is the mother of quadruplets. “It’s an anxious time,” she said, “But the kids get very excited because they know the food. My little girl said, ‘Mommy, those are my favorite! I eat those at school!’”

A pandemic will not stop USC’s Head Start staff

USC head start meals for local children

Villeda, left, and Stephanie Alonso transport 12 meals for home delivery. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Stephanie Alonso is an Early Head Start teacher and home-based educator. She has a caseload of at least 12 families. Her visits last for at least 90 minutes, during which she provides parents with skills and activities to help their children prepare for school.

When the coronavirus situation put a stop to her job routine, Alonso kept going.

“I’m very committed to my families,” Alonso said. “I offered to pick up meals for them, and six took me up on it. I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t be out doing this, but I can’t just stay home. I know those little ones are eating and smiling.”

For five decades, USC supports children from local neighborhoods

Since 1970, USC has served nearby neighborhoods with early childhood education and family support. The university operates five fully licensed child care and development centers for children 3 to 5 years old. Its mission goes beyond education to include mental health, social services and nutrition.

“When I see those kids eat, I feel like that’s why we’re here,” said Douglas, who plans to apply for additional funds to keep the program going through the summer. “There’s no stopping point for us. We’ll continue as long as we need to. We want the parents to know we’re here. I want to make sure everybody has something to eat.”

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Even during a pandemic, USC program makes sure neighborhood kids are fed

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