Taking Whoa to Wow: The Realities During National School Lunch Week 2021

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Is it possible that this school year is worse for school meal programs than last year? Talk to a few school nutrition heroes and the answer is a resounding YES.

First, the good news: All students K-12 in US schools can receive meals at no cost during SY 2021-2022. This means increased participation (more than double in some schools) and more kids getting healthy meals. This is a very good thing, until you also think about supply chain disruptions and staff shortages.

Word Cloud compiled from parent letters by Mary Rochelle, The School Food Project, Boulder Valley School District Boulder Valley School District, Colorado

There are lots of supply chain problems – late deliveries, no deliveries, substitutions and some amazingly mis-labeled cases. Imagine getting cases of frozen blueberries instead of pizza sticks, sugar instead of pizza sauce, or minced clams instead of bagels. While shortages and substitutions may be relatively easy when feeding a family of four, culinary magic tricks become serious business when you are feeding hundreds or even thousands of hungry kids at school.

Schools are facing increased demand and, in many cases, decreased supply of critical food ingredients and sometimes even the trays needed to serve them. And one more thing that is in short supply: workers. Like restaurants and stores, many school nutrition programs cannot fill open positions and are constantly juggling schedules when workers are out sick. Remember, schools have been feeding millions of students since March 2020, almost twenty months without any real breaks. From emergency curbside pickups and home doorstep deliveries, they have now moved to meals in the classroom and lines in the cafeteria. Schools may have been closed, but school foodservice was – and still is – open for business. These nutrition heroes have worked long, hard hours and they are tired – very, very tired.  

Rosemead School District, California, takes pizza shortage to pizza WOW during National Fruits and Veggies Month #HaveAPlant #HaveAPlantwithCheese

But here’s the incredible thing: During the current challenges, their creativity has continued to shine! As Moss Crutchfield, a school chef, put it, school nutrition pros know how to “turn a WHOA into WOW!” When pepperoni wedge pizza did not show up in Rosemead (CA) school kitchens, they “got innovative with vegetable pizza using roasted broccoli, mushrooms and peppers. We surprisingly found out most students loved the substitution!” In Riverview Garden School District (MO), Shannon Ebron took the pizza substitution challenge head on: “No meat topping pizzas in stock, no problem! Buffalo Chicken and Turkey-Ham Hawaiian pizza comin’ in hot from RGSD high school! Speed scratch pizza featuring a commercial 4-cheese pizza as the base.”

As a chef, Moss (new Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Epping School District, NH) has been using his mad chef skills to create new recipes out of existing USDA commodities: “Asian orange chicken failed to arrive, but I had plenty of commodity chicken and peaches at my new district. I always keep some basic foundational ingredients like teriyaki and soup bases on hand, so I made a yellow chicken curry with spices and puréed fruit. Literally DAY ONE of the new school year. Now they ask for ‘that” chicken!”

Yellow Curry Chicken, prepared by Chef Moss Crutchfield, Epping School District, New Hampshire

So, what am I thinking as we celebrate National School Lunch Week (10/11 through 10/15)? I’m thinking that the creativity of school nutrition professionals is unsurpassed in the culinary world. They have fed children WELL during a pandemic (along with hurricanes, floods and forest fires). They have searched deep into their communities to partner with local farmers, ranchers, bakers, chefs, stores and restaurants – helping local agricultural producers and food businesses survive during hard times. They are the world to hungry children as you can read in this note, shared by Vince Caugin from Natomas USD (CA).

Thank you note from student to Natomas USD Lunch Lady

What can you do? Rather than complaining about school lunch substitutions, take a few minutes to support school nutrition professionals – recognizing that they are doing the best they can, with what they have, in very difficult situations. If you work in a school, take a few minutes to handout meals at a breakfast cart or to wipe down tables between classes in the cafeteria. A simple thanks can also do wonders. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. Handmade cards from students are always in style. Thank you cards from USDA Team Nutrition are easy to download and send or print out at https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials

USDA School Meals Strong materials available at https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials

Grace and Gratitude: 10 Truths about School Meals, Labor Day, 2021

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Some of my best friends are school nutrition professionals. On any ordinary Labor Day, I would salute their hard work, post a few photos of colorful school meals, and move on. But this is no ordinary Labor Day, especially since it is the second observance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, September 6 is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of introspection and reflection. September is Hunger Awareness/Action Month as well.

For all these reasons, I am sharing some important news about school meals and the dedicated professionals who plan, prepare and serve them to 30 million plus children every school day. There is good news: All students K-12 can enjoy school meals at no cost during SY 2021-22, along with challenging news: Feeding all students K-12 during SY 2021-22 is no easy task. Unfortunately, there is also sad news: School nutrition heroes are being treated with disrespect – by school administrators, by educators, by families, and, in some worst-case scenarios, by their colleagues in the nutrition community.

In my opinion, the only things that we should be saying to school nutrition professionals this September are thank you and what can I do to help? Like your mom told you, if you cannot say kind things, please don’t say anything at all. Here’s why:

1. School lunch ladies and food dudes are true heroes. When COVID shut down the US in March 2020, school nutrition programs kept serving meals for hungry families – curbside drive-thrus when virtually every restaurant was closed, and many grocery stores had empty shelves.

2. School nutrition professionals are exhausted. They have served billions of emergency meals on the frontlines with little time to rest and recuperate. They have been creative with meal kits, emergency food boxes and dining in the classroom – but now they are tired, very tired.

3. Healthy school meals for all increases participation. School nutrition professionals know the face of childhood hunger. They saw it before the pandemic, and they watched food insecurity grow during COVID. They are eager to feed as many students as possible and to see meal counts go up.

4. School meal programs are struggling with staffing. Help-wanted signs are everywhere in foodservice. School food programs are short-staffed at the same time they have more students in line for meals. Scratch cooking with fresh and local ingredients also requires more labor hours.

5. Schools have serious problems getting food they order. If you’ve heard the term supply chain disruptions, you know that food products and equipment are also hard to come by. School nutrition programs are having trouble getting many student favorites in the increased amounts they need.

6. School dining spaces have strict safety guidelines. Keeping kids safe during COVID takes extra work and vigilance. Social distancing while eating and keep dining spaces clean requires extra staff time that is already in short supply. Students may also need extra TLC as they adjust to being back in school.

7. School nutrition leaders go the extra mile every day. They go to work on a holiday to take a delivery that cannot wait until Tuesday. They go in on a weekend to check a freezer alarm. They leave their office computers to go into schools to wash dishes, cut up veggies, serve meals and whatever else is necessary.

8. Contingency planning for B-C-D-E is the new normal. Even the best run programs need much more that a plan B. Directors are continually planning for the “unexpected” – school closures, staff rosters with necessary CVOID quarantining, postponed deliveries and _______________.

9. Rather than complaining, take time to help or support. Give school nutrition professionals grace for doing the best they can, with what they have, in very difficult situations. If you are in a school, take a few minutes to handout meals at a breakfast cart or to wipe down tables between classes in the cafeteria.

10. A simple “thanks” can do wonders. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. Handmade cards from students are always in style. These thank you cards from USDA Team Nutrition are easy to download and send or print out: https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials

Dan Gorman and his dedicated team in a year of COVID-19!

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Dan Gorman has been the Food Service Director for two Michigan districts, Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools, for 21 years. The two districts have a combined enrollment of about 3,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 47 percent. Before COVID-19 school closures, their ADP was about 60 percent for breakfast and high 60s percentages for lunch. Like thousands of his colleagues, Dan was notified on Friday, March 13, 2020, that schools would be closed starting Monday, March 16th. And on Monday, families in Montague and Whitehall could start picking up meal packs with seven breakfasts and seven lunches.

From those very first curbside meal pickups, Dan’s team has focused on making it as easy as possible for families to get the food they needed and making the quality worth the effort it took to get the food. They started and continued with a “grocery store” model, packaging pizza kits and taco meals. By working with suppliers to order was actually in the warehouse (rather than specific items with low availability), they were able to give families more food while maintaining food costs. They also worked with local Michigan Grown producers and others to purchase apples and carrots in bulk, creating 1-pound family size bags. Since schools have returned to a fairly consistent hybrid schedule, the districts have maintained a once per week pickup schedule of dinners and snacks plus breakfast and lunch when students are not in school. While participation numbers have dropped slightly, they are still sending out 1,000 meal packs per week, serving BIC and providing lunch in a variety of service locations.

Montague Pickup

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Dan agrees with most of his colleagues that the biggest challenge for the first few months of COVID emergency meals was the ever-changing, head-spinning series of waivers and guidelines. One of his biggest concerns was how to keep their staff safe. By summer 2020 they had figured the logistics out and were able to get into a basic routine. They realized that they were operating more of a warehouse rather than kitchens which helped with the musical chairs of storing large amounts of food in accessible locations. As students returned to school, sanitation became a major challenge in terms of labor – so many surfaces in so many locations.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Dan also agrees with other directors here: He is incredibly proud of the food service staff in Montague and Whitehall, of how they stepped up to get the job done, even in the beginning when it was scary: “In those early months my staff were true heroes offering our families the stability and security of food on a weekly basis.” School nutrition became a true safety net for Michigan communities, taking care of the food and nutrition needs of families. Throughout it all the school nutrition employees continued doing things that were not their ‘normal’ job – not what they had signed up for – in a situation with myriad unknowns about their personal safety.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While it may sound minor, a simple innovation made staff’s lives easier while they were struggling to do a hard job. Switching to narrow pallets that fit through a walk-in door minimized loading and unloading, especially of bulk produce. They were able to serve lots of fresh produce with better logistics.

Packing boxes in Montague High School

Jeanne, Dayle and HOPE after a year of COVID-19!

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This blog post is going to be a bit more personal than recent interviews with school nutrition professionals that I have been sharing. It is about hope after social isolation, friendship that thrives in a pandemic, and the heroic efforts of school nutrition heroes in Maine, Montana and every other state. Jeanne Reilly wrote the original post on TIPS for School Meals That Rock and created the fabulous School Nutrition Hero graphic. I have edited the following text for clarity only.

Friends in Maine

Our Thought for today is HOPE. This past week, we had the pleasure of being together for an in-person visit. Hanging with a friend, hiking around southern Maine, enjoying spring weather , chatting endlessly, and contemplating a new school year with a new round of waivers – everything felt hopeful and we were both refreshed by our visit! 

For Dayle a visit to Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program and the Mobile Meals van was her first on-site school visit since before the pandemic began. Things were certainly different: We were masked and serving meals out of a van, as well as in our cafeteria and classrooms but the simple act of returning to previously “normal” activities felt good and HOPEful. 

Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program, Mobile Meals Van

For Jeanne, it felt good to have someone to strategize with about next year, to dig into the newest round of waivers, and someone to laugh and whine and obsess about ALL of it! Nothing like a little lobster, accompanied by a healthy dose of lighthouses, fresh Maine air, hikes and bald eagle sightings to give life and a fresh perspective full of HOPE and anticipation! 

As we look forward to next year, we have HOPE that all, or almost all students will be back to learning in person; HOPE that #HealthySchoolMealsforAll will continue to be available at no cost to students next year and beyond. We certainly know that it will be a long time before things feel 100% normal, but we have HOPE that we are on the road back. 

YOU are our HEROES!

As you know School Lunch Hero Day is next Friday, May 7, 2021. We have set a small goal of getting our TIPS for School Meals That Rock membership up to 17,000 by next Friday! Can you invite some of your friends who are not currently TIPS members? If every school nutrition hero invites one of their “essential” friends, we could meet and exceed 17,000 members in no time at all! There is strength in numbers – and the more members we have the better we can collaborate, share and inspire. We look forward to ALL your posts about your celebrations!

Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?

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A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 

Cara:

Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Janis, Ben and 129 Employees of the Year!

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Director Janis Campbell-Aikens, MBA, RDN, SNS, CD, and Coordinator Ben Atkinson, MS, RDN, CD, have worked together in Auburn, Washington, School District Child Nutrition Services for 2 years. The district has about 16,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 52 percent and daily average of 5,000 breakfasts and 9,000 lunches. When Washington State schools closed in March, Auburn started serving grab-n-go meals curbside and very quickly switched to bus route deliveries in partnership with their transportation department. From March 2020 to March 2021 their department served 1,635,239 meals, including meals at every school break which was new for them. Elementary students, who are currently in school buildings 2.5 hours per day, pick up a cold breakfast and hot lunch on their way home, with some schools receiving Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks as well. Secondary students, who are in buildings for a full day 2 times per week, receive breakfast and a hot lunch during their lunch break. Additionally, there are curbside pick up locations at each school, as well as 8 mobile distribution routes serving about 50 stops throughout the school district.

Child Nutrition Services delivery vans

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Janis and Ben agreed that their biggest concern was keeping their employees COVID-19 safe with precautions unclear and/or changing from week to week. And they succeeded! While there were COVID cases, they never spread within the department. They are very grateful for the ongoing communication and regular guidance updates from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

This March Auburn School District honored all 129 ASD Child Nutrition staff members as the Classified Employees of the Year. As noted in the district’s announcementStaff members in this department are true frontline heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been since the first days of the pandemic. A few examples:

  • They were serving meals to students the week after schools closed. This was during a time when very little was known about COVID-19 and they showed up to prepare and serve meals to thousands of children.
  • Staff volunteered to work on spring break, Thanksgiving break, winter break and mid-winter break to make sure no children in Auburn go without food.
  • They worked all summer serving meals throughout Auburn, Algona & Pacific.
  • They are reimagining in-person school meals so we are sure to follow all of the health and safety requirements AND make sure students have good nutrition.
  • The CN office staff has worked to support families and assist with resources.
Wonderful way to recognize the contribution of Child Nutrition

Janis and Ben noted that between Child Nutrition and Transportation they knew the needs of each and every kid – and they were able to make certain that they got the food they needed.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Even the midst of the pandemic Ben has continued to focus on innovations in packaging and testing new recipes. These have included fresh, new flavors like Bahn Mi and Cuban sandwiches as well as the cultural flavors that reflect the meals that families enjoy at home, including chana masala and beef lo mein. They hope to continue and grow both of these innovation channels in the future.

Taste testing new recipes: Bahn Mi and Mozzarella Tomato Sandwiches plus Beef Burrito Bowls

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Maria and Your Choice Fresh!

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Maria Eunice, MS, SNS, has been the Director of Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services, Gainesville, Florida, for 16 years. The district has 30,000 students with a free/reduced rate of about 50 percent. Pre-pandemic the department – also known as Your Choice Fresh with the tagline Empowering Students Through Healthy Meals – served approximately 1.6 million breakfasts, 3.5 million lunches, 420,000 suppers and 680,000 snacks per year.

Cutest pick-up customers ever

During the year of COVID-19, Food & Nutrition Services was an acknowledged “shining star” in the district serving over 6.4 million meals since March 2020. Using a total of 81 sites (curbside and bus routes) during school closures, Alachua actually grew breakfast participation to 2.1 million meals. With only two weeks off in the past year, they have covered families’ nutrition needs every single day of the pandemic. With the exception of 6,500 virtual learners, all students have been in-person and eating at school since August 2020. Twenty-four curbside sites are still open for bulk distribution two days per week from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm. Every decision – like these distribution times – has been made to maximize participant convenience and customer service. If local students needed food, Alachua Food & Nutrition Services was there to provide it.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

The main challenge identified by Maria will be familiar to nutrition directors across the country – how to make long term plans with short term waivers. While the waivers were (and are) wonderful, they often caused disruption in food and commodity orders that had already been placed for summer and back-to-school meals. Shifting gears for major pivots happened on several occasions in Alachua. They also experienced supply-chain issues for food items, packaging and even bins to use on bus routes. They thrived thanks to dedicated employees and community support.

Alachua employees make all the difference

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Maria is very proud of the new and improved relationships within the school district and the wider community that have grown over the year of COVID-19. Food & Nutrition Services trained paraprofessionals, crossing guards and, of course, bus drivers to help with food distribution – and some have become department employees! Everyone, including the school board, has a new appreciation for the importance and contributions of the Your Choice Fresh. Unexpected assistance came in many forms; at bus route distribution points, the local police would often announce the arrival of meals and encourage families to ‘come and get it’ over their PA systems.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Food & Nutrition Services wants to continue growing their engagement with families around food and nutrition at home. The YC at Home (Your Choice at Home) platform has allowed them to effectively share nutrition and culinary education, reinforcing the benefits of school meals for the whole family at home. The use of QR codes is another successful innovation that they will keep using. Printing the codes onto packaging and menus has made it easy for customers to find cooking instructions and other information on the departmental website – with one click on a smartphone.

Customer service with QR codes for links to recipes and more

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Scott and his video “career”!

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Scott Anderson, has been the Food Service Director in Madison County Schools, Kentucky, for 6 years. Before moving into School Nutrition, Scott had years of school experience as a teacher, assistant principal and principal. Madison County Schools has about 12,000 enrolled students and is 100 percent CEP. Pre-pandemic their ADP was approximately 75 percent at breakfast and 80 percent at lunch. When schools closed in March 2020, Madison County immediately switched to a daily drive-thru distribution model – or as Scott calls it “feeding cars” – with a couple of meals at a time (at least one being a hot meal). The next pivot was a two-month period of delivering meals by bus (15 daily routes) which became a logistical nightmare. In May 2020 they switched back to having parents come to them, with their one Street EATZ bus delivering throughout the city of Richmond, Kentucky. They began to focus on high quality meal kits that families could prepare at home, including take-and-bake Build Your Own Pizza Friday and crockpot meals, as well as all-you-need-ingredients for cookouts and porch picnics.

Madison County Pizza Kits being enjoyed at home

Currently about half of the district elementary and middle students are in-person and half are virtual, while high school is still on independent study. Meals are served to everyone in school with 90 percent eating breakfast and 100 percent enjoying lunch. Weekly meal packages including CACFP suppers are distributed from 4 to 6 on Tuesday afternoons (about 3-5,000 per week). Since the COVID-19 closures began, the district as served over 2 million meals, currently about 150,000 and 160,000 meals per week counting in-school and distribution to families.

Meals served in-school and distributed to virtual learners

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Scott mentioned two interrelated challenges: The first was retraining the over 100 departmental employees who were very proud of home cooked meals they prepared and served to students. Daily contact between students and staff were very important to both – and gone during school closures. During COVID-19 employees had to be trained to prepare new products, like frozen meals to be baked at home and meal kits. On the customer side, families were accustomed to gourmet-quality, house-made meals for their children at school. They had to be convinced that the meals were worth coming to pick up. Marketing to the community became very important – Scott has leveraged the video possibilities on Facebook to show the visual quality of their food. His videos are open, transparent and folksy – and a new video can directly increase participation when it starts to level off a bit. The Madison County Food Service FB page now has over 5,500+ followers with lots of engagement!

Scott Anderson use videos to share everything about Madison County Food Service. Here is talks about new cafeteria tables.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Scott is most proud of his team – how they stepped to embrace a job that was not exactly what they had signed up for. They love kids and have been working straight through for a year – including summer – to serve students the best meals possible. The department has been recognized with three awards but the most important thing is that they are doing it for kids.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Madison County Food Service have been “Team Essential”

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While Scott recognizes that his department has gotten good at feeding virtual learners and that take-and-bake options may continue in the future, he honestly just wants to get back to doing what they did before COVID-19, like baking all their own bread.

Peanut Pros Certification for RDNs #sponsored

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#ad Excellence in school meals is everything to me. To provide both delicious and nutritious foods to K-12 students, I’ve found that peanuts can be a versatile and affordable snack solution. That’s why I’m proud to work with NationalPeanutBoard and RDN experts on an exciting new educational program for my dietetics colleagues.

The new Peanut Pros Certification Program has eight on-demand modules worth 2 CPEUs about the nutritional benefits of peanuts, including my module on incorporating peanuts in schools. Sign up to get #PeanutProCertified today! Participants will also become eligible to access prizes, exclusive events and activities, including a spot on an August Georgia Peanut Farm Tour! Inaugural Peanut Pro Certified RDs who complete the program by 5/14 will also be randomly selected to receive a GIY (Grow-it-Yourself) peanut planting kit!

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Brian, on a mission at St. Labre Mission!

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Brian S. Jones has been the Food Service Director at St. Labre Indian School (a private Catholic School) in Montana for five years. The 100% CEP district enrolls 600 students from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in three buildings, each with its own kitchen. Pre-COVID the program was preparing breakfast and lunch meals for all students. Brian and his 26 staff members have a well-deserved reputation for excellence: St. Labre meals are made from scratch, everything from the baking of all breads and rolls to cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables for salad bars and lines. Brian also been known as the “bison man” in SNA circles because the school raises, processes and serves their own bison meat.

When schools closed in March and students were scattered throughout a sparsely inhabited area without reliable transportation, Brian knew he had to do something different to keep feeding his customers. He had always been thinking about packaging systems in the back of his mind and knew this was the time to purchase them. The administration agreed to buy three packaging machines, one for each kitchen. Later a donor read about their success with packaged meals and donated funds for a fourth machine to increase capacity. The program made, packaged and delivered over 900 meals per day – the same high quality, house-made meals that they served before the pandemic, like salads and parfaits. The schools are gradually returning to in-person learning with meals in the classroom and some older students living full-time in the dormitory.  

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

To achieve Brian’s vision of a quality end-product, the entire staff had to be re-trained. Basically school kitchens with tray lines had to be turned into production kitchens with assembly lines. Cooks needed training on adapted recipes and the packaging crew needed to learn the ins-and-outs of packaging machines. Due to supply chain and storage issues (challenges in the best of times), the district also had to go to shelf stable milk.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Brian doesn’t hesitate for a moment in giving credit where credit is due: He is incredibly proud of his staff. He recognizes that much of their work satisfaction comes from daily interactions with students around nourishing food. They were able to take that energy and passion for mostly personal relationships and turn it into the more routine jobs of packing and delivery food. Because transportation routes had be reconfigured and buses could not go unto certain areas, food services employees also became food van drivers – a sometimes treacherous situation due to weather and the potential for COVID exposure.

Employees have embraced production meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Sadly the reservations served by St. Labre School have been hard hit by the pandemic with high rates of infection and deaths. It is the tradition of the tribes to serve large funeral feasts for extended families and friends, often at events for up to 150 people. The multiple packaging machines have been getting lots of use for catering these events (at cost) – sometimes up to six in one week.

Production Meals in St. Labre Indian School

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Hannah in Kansas City, MISSOURI!

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Hannah Thornburgh RD/LD, has been a Supervisor/Dietitian in Kansas City Public Schools (KSPS), Kansas City, Missouri, for 16 months. The 100 percent CEP district has about 15,000 enrolled students. Before pandemic school closures, ADP in the district was approximately 80 percent for lunch and 50 percent for breakfast. When KSPS schools closed in March, the district started serving curbside meal packs (one to three days at a time), then closed completely for a month to develop a service model that could serve as many students as possible. Meals on the Bus was created with the transportation department and a goal of having every student no more than a mile from a school meal distribution stop – 190 stops throughout the city. Breakfast and lunch were distributed daily plus weekend meals on Friday (and on days when weather was problematic). Although participation was lower than their traditional in-school service, Meals on the Bus (along with targeted home deliveries) were eventually serving about 75 of usual district meals.

Meals on the Bus for Fall semester 2020

On March 8, 2021, KCPS students started returning to school gradually using a two-day hybrid model. In-school meals include BIC, grab-n-go, and Café in the Classroom (for lunch). Hybrid learners have take-home meals on Tuesday and Friday, on Wednesday curbside bulk meals are distributed to remote learners. Meals in the Classroom (MIC) have gone smoothly because BIC had been the usual mode of service in 15 of 34 districts schools.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Imagine being a new-to-school-nutrition menu planner during the constantly changing environment of waivers and safety precautions from March 2020 through today. That has been Hannah Thornburgh’s year of COVID-19. Coming to school nutrition from a non-profit education position in Operation Food Search in St. Louis, Hannah not only had to learn menu patterns and components, but she also had to learn how to change them with an evolving set of waivers – sometimes on as weekly basis – almost like a Rubik’s cube of menus! Hannah also had to develop new supervision and employee management skills during a time when staff assignments had the potential to be life-or-death situations. Perhaps her toughest challenge was how to keep a positive attitude in new city under lockdown conditions!

Menu for hybrid high school meals, April 2021

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Although her pandemic year has been plenty stressful, Hannah is grateful to be working in a department where food security and equity are top of mind. Knowing that you are a community lifeline means making “how to reach more people” has been part of every departmental discussion leading directly to initiatives like Meals on the Bus. She is also focused on growing the department’s Facebook page – another way to get the word out by engaging families, district leaders and other stakeholders.

EQUITY is even on their t-shirts

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Meals on the Bus will continue as a part of KSPS meal service – likely for summer feeding. It has become an essential part of equity in their district a way to serve the best possible meals to families that need them. Hannah also plans to increase social media – perhaps with a nutrition education channel on YouTube.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Chad and the Decorah Community!

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Chad Elliott, has been the Nutrition Director and Culinary Specialist in Decorah Community School District for 10 years. The district has an enrollment of 1,600 students (approximately 20 percent) in a town of about 6,000 in rural northeast Iowa. When school were closed, the Decorah team packed 5 lunches and 5 breakfasts for pick up and delivery. The nutrition department also delivered meals to families in need when bus drivers were not available. Decorah schools have been back in session full-time since January 2021 with a few families still picking up five day meal packs for remote learners. Participation has not yet returned to pre-COVID levels and Chad is hopeful that they will be able to get back to full-service nutrition next year.

Homemade breakfast pizza with juice and yogurt

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Chad, the availability of product was the biggest challenge for their department over the past year. When they needed non-perishable, pre-portioned meal components, they could not get them from their main purveyor. Disposable items for packing food items were also in short supply and unpredictable when ordered. Fortunately northeast Iowa is a mecca for local food and the Decorah Community School District (DCSD) is fortunate to have locally produced foods on their menus every day. When products were unavailable from their usual distributor, local farmers and producers provided items through the Iowa Food Hub that the school could use in grab and go bags. These items included cheese curds, yogurt, meat stick, and a variety of vegetables.

Local farmers and producers provide products for bulk meals in 2020

DCSD had extensive school gardens and grow houses that provided produce for school meals in years past. Production from these programs suffered during COVID but Chad and his staff are eagerly looking forward to onions, Bibb lettuce, beet greens and many herbs this spring. DCSD has been famous for many scratch-cooked items; these herb bread and rolls served on April 8, 2021, shows that the tradition continues.

Bread and rolls with parsley and thyme

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

I cannot express how proud I am of our nutrition staff,” says Chad Elliott. When fear of the unknown was rampant, the nutrition employees stepped up and selflessly changed their work schedules and hours so meals could get prepared and handed out to families in need. When schools shut down for remote learning, nutrition staff remained flexible and continued to build meals each day for deliveries to students, often using their personal vehicles each day due to the lack of available bus drivers. Nutrition department employees have clearly embraced one of Chad’s favorite Martin Luther King’s quotes: The time is always right to do what’s right.

Decorah nutrition employees

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Before COVID-19, Decorah had done minimal cross-training in the district’s six kitchens. Over the past year, they increased their cross-training by necessity – in order to maintain service throughout the district. Cross training is now something that they use to open up staff to new strategies, positions and ways to get things done. It has given employees a new perspective and appreciation for the work being done in other kitchens.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Elizabeth and the Carson City community!

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Elizabeth Snyder, DTR, has been Director of Nutrition, in Carson City (Nevada) School District for just over 2 years. Elizabeth is a district employee who works closely with the Chartwells K12 Director of Dining Services and Executive Chef. The district has enrollment of 7,900 students with about 55 percent eligible for free/reduced price meals prior to the COVID19 school closures in March 2020. Pre-pandemic the district has an ADP of 53 percent at lunch and 33 percent at breakfast. Nevada schools were closed on March 15th and by March 17th Carson City had opened five strategically located sites for daily meals plus a weekend pack, adding 3 bus routes on March 19th. During summer feeding hot meals were served at the Boys and Girls Club – and Elizabeth developed four contingency plans for the opening of school year 2020-21. None of these plans worked but Nutrition Services staff have learned to cope with constant change and focused on providing meals to those students who need it the most. Currently 25 percent of students do fully remote learning and the rest follow a hybrid schedule – with multiple types of meal service to accommodate all students.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Personally Elizabeth found the challenge was not knowing what to expect. She likes to have a plan and found it challenging to let go of plans A, B, C and D – and then move on to something that she had not even considered.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

The silver lining of the Elizabeth’s pandemic is that it showed her what an incredible team she has and what a giving community exists in Carson City. The dedicated team of school lunch heroes worked tirelessly to safely prep, cook, pack and distribute meals to the children who needed them. Her managers have done an amazing job with the pandemic ‘pivot’ and are “on top of everything.” Right now they are operating three different service models out of all (10) school sites. Elizabeth is very grateful for how everyone – teachers, staff, parents, volunteers, and community members – came together and focused on keeping kids fed at schools and other sites. Several community groups and businesses provided donations, including franchises like Del Taco, Pizza Factory and Dutch Brothers Coffee.

Carson City families appreciate Nutrition Services

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Elizabeth had two answers to this question: First, she notes that her department has gotten “really good at grab-n-go options.” They have new equipment including insulated bags so that they can do a better job of to-go meals in the future. She specifically mentioned enhanced meals for field trips – beyond the usual sandwich in a brown bag. Another silver lining during COVID-19 has been connections with the district’s media person, Dan Davis. This has helped Elizabeth get the word(s) out about nutrition services, especially the availability of free meals. Families were confused as waivers changed over time and social media was very helpful in clarifying the situation as it evolved.

District Facebook page shares Nutrition Services info with families

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Jody and Humboldt Unified!

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Jody Buckle has been the Director of Food and Nutrition, in Humboldt (Arizona) Unified School District, for a little over two years. The district serves 5,000 students (approximately 50 percent free/reduced pre-pandemic). Their normal ADP was 57 percent at lunch and 18 percent at breakfast. When the district closed schools in March 2020, they switched to a daily pickup of meals (breakfast and lunch) for the 4th quarter. As they moved into summer, they switched to a weekly pickup with the option of daily meals for students living close to school sites. Humboldt schools were closed for the first quarter of 2020-21 school year, but participation was very low under NSLP. Nutrition services shifted gears again, partnered with transportation, did evening bus routes based on areas of highest need, and added promotions. Their 2nd quarter started with more in-school and hybrid learning but had to return to home delivery when schools shut down again during a spike in COVID cases. With ongoing Head Start meals (600 a day), weekly meals for remote learners and most students now back in school, they getting close to last year’s lunch participation numbers. Breakfast has had a substantial increase to 28 percent.  

Packed up and ready to-go

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

For Jody, financial stability was the biggest challenge of the pandemic year. In addition to financial issues created by major fluctuations in participation, Humboldt Unified also welcomed a new superintendent, new assistant superintendent and new finance director. While it is easy to say, “we just need to feed kids,” it is complicated to do in a district with limited resources and dropping fund balances. Jody focused on meeting customer needs to maximize participation. With effective use of all available waivers and by leveraging partnerships, Jody has overcome deficits and is slowly able to build back a fund balance.  

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Jody is grateful for his employees, especially for their ability to pivot through multiple changes – sometimes with little notice. There were no layoffs in his department and, out of ten district kitchens, only one employee tested positive for COVID-19 the whole year. When safety precautions and protocols were put in place, everyone followed them. He also credits his staff for their positive relationships with students. They wanted to continue offering garden bars, allowing students to make choices, so everything is now individually wrapped and students can pick their own items. The “if you touch it, it is yours” training by staff has been a big win for fruit and vegetable consumption by students – and led to increased participation.

Garden bars help to increase participation

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Like several other directors in this series, Jody Buckle mentioned ‘mindset’ as what he wants to carry forward. Through the experiences of the pandemic year, the Food and Nutrition employees have learned that they can change and do it successfully. Change does bring stress when people are used to doing things in routine ways – but in Humboldt Unified they have learned that changes can help make their jobs easier and more rewarding. Learning to be flexible now means that “everything is possible.”

These School Nutrition Heroes can do anything!

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Doug, Heather and Burlington’s Team!

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Doug Davis, SNS, Food Service Director, and Heather Torrey, MS, RD, SNS, Assistant Director, have been working together at Burlington School Food Project for the past four school years. The district has 4,000 enrolled students with about 50 percent being eligible for free/reduced meals pre-pandemic, when their ADP was 65 percent at both breakfast and lunch. Even though both Heather and Doug were out of state when COVID-19 hit, within 48 hours of school closures they were serving meals using a completely new service model. The forty department employees were divided into pods of 10 and they started serving one bag with one day of meals curbside for approximately 500 students, plus meals for the homeless housed in local hotels (3 meals a day, 7 days per week). Both Doug and Heather admit that things were very tough in the beginning and they were able to make it through because of extraordinary assistance from other school employees, like the paraprofessionals who organized and staffed food distribution points. They also deeply appreciate the support for the Vermont state child nutrition agency and their food distributor Reinhart Foodservice LLC.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Doug and Heather are quick to acknowledge the operational challenges that were top-of-mind, especially in the first weeks of school closures. Like most other districts, they struggled with staffing issues, supply chain disruptions, and transportation concerns. However they also stress the underlying emotional challenges as well. Even though everyone was focused on the need to feed children, there was anxiety about a deadly disease with lots of unknowns for those who did not have an option to work remotely. Heather admits that she worried about “being the one to take out my whole team.”

Meal Kit distribution during a Vermont winter requires the right vehicles and equipment

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

The successes of the Burlington School Food Project over the past year demonstrate how a team came together, got work done and built a unique model to feed children. After a participation dip in the summer, the Burlington team is now distributing 20,000 quality meals per week in meal kits containing 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 suppers, and 7 snacks. There is a weekly vegetarian option, often based on foods reflecting the diversity of Burlington (where over 40 languages are spoken in a high school of 1,000 students). 

Although there were more unknowns than knowns over the year, Heather and Doug are not surprised about what the team was able to do. The Burlington School Food Project has worked hard to be integrated into the education process of the district and into sustainable agriculture in Vermont. In March 2021, they partnered with the local Couching Lion Maple Farm and distributed a Harvest of the Month maple syrup jug in every meal kit. The farm is owned by a teacher in the district, making more connections between education, local agriculture, and delicious meals for children. Moving forward, Burlington School Food Project plans more direct contact with Vermont farmers and food producers. Since they know that the Meal Box model will continue through September, they have started calling local farmers and food producers with a heads up about the volume the district will need so they can plan their planting and harvest schedule. “Leveraging buying power to support the local economy and provide high quality foods to our families has been — and will continue to be a core focus for our program.”

Couching Lion Maple Syrup, Vermont Harvest of the Month

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Rather than a procedure or a food product, the Burlington School Food Project will take a mindset into the future. As Doug Davis said, “I will never look at a problem or situation and think we cannot do that. I now know that there is nothing that we cannot do. We can meet any challenge.

Heather has a slightly different take: “I went back to my dietetics basics with the ADIME model to constantly assess what we are doing and how we can make it better. We started curbside meal service with one model, saw that we were not reaching as many folks as it should, and we switched it up. Now we’re in the M/E phase of our Family Meal Kits and make subtle tweaks each week to better meet the needs of our community.”

Classic and Vegetarian Meal Kits

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Tina Farmer #CCSDfam #CCSDserves!

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Tina Farmer, MBA, has been Director of School Nutrition in Cherokee County School District for 5 years. The district has over 42,000 enrolled students, with about 29 percent eligible for free/reduced-meals pre-pandemic, when they were serving approximately 22,000 lunches per day. On Friday, March 13, 2020,Cherokee County Superintendent of Schools requested that all departments, including School Nutrition, begin to plan for school closures. Tina and her staff immediately went to a curbside pickup model on Mondays, 5 days of meals per pack for all students who were completely digital at that point.

Cherokee was one of the first districts in GA (and probably the US) to return to in-school learning with 30,000 students (a quarter of students chose to continue learning remotely) on August 3, 2020. At this point half of students were eating in cafeterias, half were eating in the classroom, and curbside pickup was still available for remote learners.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Tina Farmer has a relentless can-do mindset but even she admits that the coping with multiple service models, often short staffed due to mandated precautionary quarantines, was a serious challenge. About 10% of Cherokee County students are still enrolled in digital learning and an average of 500 meals are picked up curbside. Under the ‘umbrella’ challenge of serving in several different locations and in several different ways are the issues of staffing, scheduling and menuing in 39 different school locations. A product or menu item that is designed for a cafeteria tray may not work well – or at all – for delivery to a classroom or bagged for a to-go situation.

Salads, Dean Rusk Middle School, August 2020

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Although there were plenty of challenges, Tina attributes the success of her program during COVID-19 to the perseverance of the Cherokee County School Nutrition staff – noting that they were able to pivot whenever the situation required. During the past year, the department often needed to pivot at a moment’s notice – as in ‘schools will shut down tomorrow’ so meals need to be prepared and available for curbside pick-up. Tina is not at all surprised that her staff members were able to rise to any situation, she is just very grateful!

In Cherokee County, the school district and the community have come together to meet student needs. The hashtags #CCSDfam and #CCSDserves accurately describe the mindset and spirit of everyone involved in education. They have also underscored the need for and value of school meals. In a January 2021 newsletter, Superintendent Hightower let families know how he values the work of School Nutrition staff with this message:

From Superintendent Hightower to district families

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Feeding 40,000 students during a pandemic necessitated many changes – sometimes with little notice. This meant that communication between nutrition site managers and families also needed to be upgraded. Tina credits the district communications team with helping her department create an efficient ordering system for meal pick and believes that the new electronic communication channels will enhance their ability to provide summer meals more efficiently.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Dawndrea and her one woman show!

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Dawndrea Daly, has been the Foodservice Coordinator in Platte County #2 School District (Wyoming) for 6 years. The district is located in the very rural town of Guernsey, about two hours north of Cheyenne. It serves 244 students, with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 44 percent. Before school closed in March, the school was providing 160 to 180 lunches (depending on the menu) and 80 breakfasts. Currently, with all students back in school, Daly reports that they are serving 160 breakfasts and 160 to 180 lunches (again depending on the menu).

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

When COVID-19 closed all schools in Wyoming in March 2020, Dawndrea Daly became at “one-woman show” at Guernsey High School. While other foodservice employees were reassigned by the superintendent, she kept the kitchen lights on – and she kept on serving breakfast and lunches to any student who came to pick them up. Daly admits that the “first week was insane” but she knew that it had to be done, so she did it. From March through August 2020, she offered curbside pickup by car, bicycle and wagon – and she served a grand total of 16,210 meals. She ordered the food (which became a major challenge during supply chain shortages), prepared the meals and packaged the meals by herself. She had help with curbside pickup from administration – but all the rest was up to her.

Ready to distribute meals to hungry students in Guernsey, Wyoming

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Dawndrea Daly is not one to brag about her achievements. She says that she was just doing her job and making sure that kids were fed – and fed well. She did want the community to know that school meals are important to children and families. The gratitude and appreciation that she has received from making over 16,000 meals is beyond anything she ever expected. In fact, she received statewide recognition as a Wyoming hero when she was invited by Governor Gordon and his wife Jennie to attend and lead the Pledge of Allegiance for the Governor’s virtual Prayer Breakfast in March 2021. Dawndrea was proud to represent all school foodservice professionals at the breakfast and honored to meet state leaders. Once the weather is better, she hopes to ride her Harley back to Cheyenne and to visit with the Wyoming’s First Lady again.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

For the past several years. Daly has gone above and beyond in her role as Foodservice Coordinator, applying for many successful grants. She received a Salad Bars for Schools grant from the Chef Ann Foundation, a USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant and a Geodome for students to grow fresh vegetables (which will be back up and running as soon as COVID precautions allow).

Current March 2021 Salad Bar

Right now, she might be running the only salad bar in Wyoming – with a plexiglass front and a dedicated staff member who builds a salad from items chosen by each student. It’s not at all surprising that someone who made thousands of meals by herself would find a way to safely continue using a salad bar to benefit her student customers. Hey COVID, I think you met your match in Guernsey, Wyoming!

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Laura and the superheros in Wamego!

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Laura Fails started working in USD 320, Wamego, Kansas, in 2005, becoming Food Service Director in 2008. The district serves about 1,600 students, with approximately 25 percent qualifying for free/reduced-priced meals. Pre-pandemic the district served    1,000 to 1,200 lunches and 350 breakfasts. In early March 2021, Laura was at LAC in DC with several other Kansas directors and the state Child Nutrition director. Returning to Wamego and a busy weekend of planning, her department began feeding students in the park, one day after the school district decided to close. They prepared meals for 500 students, feeding 175 children the first day; participation grew and grew as waivers came in, and soon they were serving over 900 children a day. In September 2020, the district returned to in-person learning with the option of remote learning. Currently all breakfasts and some lunches are served in the classroom with delivery to about 45 remote-learning students.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Laura’s biggest challenge was keeping so many details organized and tied together. Keeping her staff motivated, encouraged and supported required a tremendous amount of energy especially with constant pivoting. Any cheerleader will tell you that the job requires a lot of energy, especially when routines, schedules and everything else is constantly changing. Laura reports that it helped her to realize that there was more than just one way to do things and to witness the amazing team work that developed among those working together. At some points during COVID19, she had just as just as many volunteers as paid workers, including former students, parents and community folks.

Kiwanis volunteers Roland and Ruth Miller for help distributing remote meals

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Covid has made a real difference in how the community sees and supports school nutrition programs in Wamego – so much so that the Food Service Department received the Wamego Chamber of Commerce Impact Award for 2020. She is gratified that local groups and agencies now understand the value of school meals and are open to partnerships and collaborations. A relationship with the local library has grown into a literary programs with books, make-and-take recipes and nutrition videos. It started as small seed and has grown into something that will benefit the whole community.

USD 320 Food Services recognized with Chamber of Commerce Impact Award

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Being able to serve breakfast in the classroom (BIC) has been a major innovation in USD 320 and Laura is planning to continue the program in all schools. Prior to the pandemic there had been pushback, especially from teachers, but now many school leaders can see how well it can works with their own eyes – and how much it can benefit academic performance. Before 2020 the school district had never been a sponsor for summer feeding. Now the program is theirs – and they were able to expand offerings to small outlying communities and delivery routes last summer. Laura hopes to maintain the expanded programs to serve more children in the mornings and over summer break.

Breakfast carts encourage students to grab-n-go to their classroom

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Whitney and PPS Nutrition’s audacious goal!

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Whitney Ellersick, MS, RDN, has been Senior Director, Nutrition Services, at Portland (Oregon) Public Schools since 2017. The district serves just shy of 50,000 students; pre-pandemic, 13 of their neighborhood schools (30 percent) were CEP, this school year the number has risen to 50 CEP schools. Since March 2020, Portland Public Schools has only been serving about 1/3 of their usual meals, still over 800,000 meals. Starting April 1, 2021, they will gradually bring students back to school for in-person instruction but no students will be in school long enough to eat in the building. Whitney and her team will continue to distribute to-go meals throughout the district – with features like local, farm-to-school tamales from Tortilleria Y Tienda De Leon.

Cheese and Green Chili Tamales from Tortilleria Y Tienda Leon

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

PPS Nutrition Team has had an audacious goal – “to be the most successful urban school district, to educate palates, inspire culinary curiosity, and nourish the health of the community through school meals.” Since 1995 PPS Nutrition Services has allowed students to have unlimited access to fruits and vegetables on salad bars, offered in a bulk, self-service style. PPS has also taken advantage of Portland’s unique food culture to collaborate with local producers and purveyors. Not wanting COVID19 to derail their vision and partnerships, the Nutrition Services team has worked hard to give students (and their families) the same experience with foods and recipes that they have worked so hard to incorporate over the past two decades.

Root Vegetables

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Like all other districts PPS had to ‘pivot’ rapidly in response to Covid19. Just before school closures in March 2020, PPS pulled all salad bar foods behind the service line and served the students to prevent high touch points. Since school closed, PPS Nutrition Services had to find creative ways of packaging fresh fruits and vegetables for curbside, grab-and-go, and home meal delivery services. They continued to offer a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables wherever possible. With help from grants, they purchased bagging machines so school teams can bag bulk, raw vegetables. As you see in this PowerPoint thank you from a student their efforts have been appreciated.

A Thank You to Food Deliverers from student Josh (shared with permission)

Whitney challenged her team to do more, from serving 7 days of breakfasts and lunches to adding supper and increasing to 7 days of supper meals. They also added a weekly fresh fruit or vegetable through their USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program grants. During distance learning, nutrition education handouts and resources are available to families on the Nutrition Services website.

Rainbow Carrots

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Rather than a specific innovation in procedures or meals, Whitney mentions the collaboration and communication with other PPS departments that developed during COVID19. She hopes that Nutrition Services can build upon their pandemic experiences to work more closely with their colleagues throughout the district. School food has been on the PPS frontlines for more than a year and there dedication has been noticed by administrators, educators, families and students.

Cara Cara Oranges: Fruit of the Week

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Andrea and engagement with families!

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Andrea Early, MS, RD, in her 18th year as Director of School Nutrition for Harrisonburg City Public Schools. This Virginia district has 6,500 Students Pre-K through 12 grade. Pre-pandemic the district was headed toward 100 percent CEP, with an ADP around 78 percent at lunches and 70 percent at breakfast with alternative service models. During Covid19 school closures they served curbside (moving frow 2X to 1X per week in order to increase participation along with ‘door dash’ for schools delivering 500 bags via car routes. During April the district is gradually bringing students back into buildings and the department is returning to cafeteria and classroom meals.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Like many of her fellow directors Andrea Early, mentions employee health and safety as her biggest challenger over the past year. With many older employees and health challenges, workplace accommodations were always top of mind. Since there was no option for remote work, people had to learn how to take risks seriously, how to self-screen for symptoms, and how to make informed decisions about immunizations. Andrea is grateful to work in a district where the administration was very data-driven and provided consistent messaging to staff and families.

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Andrea is proud that her department was instrumental in helping the entire district stay engaged with students (and their families) as much as possible. Due to the combined efforts of teachers, administrators and food service, meal curbside pickup became a big part of family connections to the district. While school nutrition had a high profile prior to the pandemic, “we were able to amplify our voice at the table.” Although participation was not what it would have been without COVID, Andrea was able to maintain staffing levels and offer an appropriate wage increase.

Teachers (in costume and not) helped to deliver meals and engage families

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Many districts, like Harrisonburg City Schools, have developed a bigger picture of education through the COVID19 lens. As schools realize that virtual or hybrid may be better for some students, Andrea knows that her department has learned how to package and deliver meals for those students too. Large-scale, attractive, packing in bags – “we have it figured out now!”

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for April Liles and her leadership style!

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April Liles, RD, SNS, has been the Child Nutrition Program Director in Waltham (Massachusetts) School District for 7 years. The district has about 5,500 students and, pre-COVID, 51 percent were eligible for free/reduced meals. They have been fully remote until two weeks ago (serving over 1 million meals) and now gearing up to have all students back in the building on April 5. This March 19, 2021, Facebook post helps to tell the year-of-COVID19 story in Waltham Public Schools: This picture was from one year ago and honestly, we didn’t know much. We didn’t know to wear masks, stay distanced or how this pandemic would change the world forever. What we did know is – WE MUST FEED THE CHILDREN! And thus – we did just that. Over and over again each week, into the summer and into this entire school year. It is what we have always done and so we moved forward together into the unknown.

March 19, 2020: 1st emergency meal service BEFORE masks, PPE & social distancing

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

As a nutrition director, April has always been focused on food and people. Her biggest COVID19 challenge was people piece – the 70 employees of her department who had not signed up to be frontline, essential ‘heroes.’ She says that her pandemic experience has been, and still is, transformative in terms of leadership style – life-changing in both professional and personal ways. April has learned how to step back, and let employees move to the front, perform and do what they have trained to do: “I am so proud and humbled by my team’s readiness to just do the work.” 

The WPS Food and Nutrition Team – in the times BEFORE Masks and Social Distancing

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Noting that you are nothing without your team, April is proud of being able to maintain staffing and keeping entire nutrition Food and Nutrition Services on the payroll. They were able to feed the families of the city well because of their teamwork. And they have amped up their sanitation protocols in response to pandemic precautions, involving teamwork with building custodians to be “impeccably clean and sanitized.”

Teamwork is also what allowed WPS to maintain the integrity of meals delivered as curbside kits rather than on trays in cozy cafeterias. This also required letting go – no more colorful salad bars and delightful food art – and a new focus on “Build Your Own” instructions for items like parfaits and trendy tortilla hacks. April and her RDN partner Haylee Dussault continue to create home-run meal kits by introducing other on-trend items like Korean Bibimbap.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

April is eager to expand their in-school offerings with carts and kiosks in the hallways and enhanced deliveries to classrooms. Her staff is energized to try new things and building administrators are now wanting to sit down and talk about it. Bulk meals outside school day have become a reality – for weekend and vacation meals as well as virtual learners. Of course, she definitely plans to keep the new super-sanitation procedures in place as well.

Weekly Meal Kit: Combination of prepared meals and DIY items

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Angie, Maria and Roseville schools!

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Angie Richey, MPH, RD, SNS (Supervisor) and Maria Anderson, MS, RD, SNS (Coordinator) manage two public school districts and five joint agreement schools north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Their district with the highest need, Roseville Area Schools, serve 7,300 students, down a few hundred from pre-pandemic levels when 47 percent of students qualified for free/reduced meals. Since March 2020 they have provided daily meal pickups at bus stops and schools curbside, plus home delivery via two trucks and a bus (a total of 919,000+ meals thru January 2021). They are just beginning to bring secondary (7-12) students back into buildings and are planning to continue meals for virtual learners as necessary.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Angie and Maria agree that the “mental load” of the pandemic was a big challenge. It was difficult – and scary – to keep 80 staff members safe, feeling valued and motivated. There was also an issue with monotony: Pre-COVID the district had been digging deep into scratch cooking, processing fresh veggies and introducing new items to students. With a 3-three week menu cycle and all meals being prepacked, workers were bored – handing out meals curbside was a coveted position because you could see students! Realizing the problem enabled Angie and Maria to provide hazard-pay for some positions – and to encourage changes like relaxation of the uniform policy and smaller celebrations like Hawaii Day. A little fun went a long way to improving attitudes!

Hawaii Day lifts spirits during a Minnesota winter

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

By taking an equity lens to food distribution, Roseville Area Schools were able support a food security safety net for entire community, especially for the most vulnerable families. They were able to ensure that no students fell through the cracks – and, through partnerships, like Second Harvest Heartland food bank and Minnesota Central Kitchen (employing laid-off restaurant workers), to feed families as well with Roseville Family Table Meals. Since many families in the district had little to no kitchen equipment, Angie and Maria made the decision to provide microwaveable meals rather than kits.

Fortunately, they have still been able to use local foods from farmers and producers within 300 miles of Roseville. Their meals are loaded with local carrots, green beans, radishes, apples and more (when seasonally available). They have also been able to continue a partnership with Ferndale Market to provide local turkey wieners and hot dogs. They know that supporting local growers is even more important during difficult times when many restaurant outlets have been closed. Angie and Maria’s future plans include more direct purchasing, more local grains and processed foods, and more Minnesota Thursday meals.

Microwaveable meals introduce new products and foods to Roseville families

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Roseville Area School Nutrition Services plans to continue a renewed focus on food security and its greater impact in the lives of women – at home and in the workforce. They plan to expand their partnership with the high school-based Food Shelf Program  to help connect families with more than just food needs. Looking forward, their motto is “if our Nutrition Services Department cannot fill a gap, we will partner with those who can.”

Winter meals bundles include new offerings to combat menu fatigue

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Christine and and the SCH team!

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Christine Clarahan, MS, SNS, RDN, has been the director in the School City of Hammond, Department of Food and Nutrition, for 4 years. The district, in a suburb of Chicago located in Indiana, has just under 13,000 students and operated as a CEP district pre-COVID, serving breakfast to about 50 percent of students and lunch to over 80 percent. Starting April 6th the district will have about 20 percent of students in face-to-face learning and 80 percent are attending school virtually. While the district has been 100% virtual, meals have been delivered via 10 curbside sites and 8 bus delivery routes.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Without hesitancy, Christine says communication was the biggest challenge she faced during COVID19. Communication with 140 staff members was a top priority – but many of her staff members did not have easy access to email, several did not even own smartphones. Communication with families had to be bilingual in Spanish and English. Like her staff, many families did not have reliable access to electronic devices; they were often confused with week-to-week changes in the beginning; and sometimes understandably worried about having enough food for their families. Customer relations could be quite difficult and clear communication became even more essential, using radio and newspapers in addition to digital channels.

Celebrating Team Work

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Christine is justifiably proud that her department worked as team focused on the goal of feeding kids. We had a job to do and we did it without complaining. Things were hard, sometimes things went wrong, but we did the best we could. Clarahan was able to keep all staff members on the payroll and to help them know that they were all in this together with a common goal. She made certain to share all the positive feedback she received and to emphasize that self-care was essential.

Everyone, even the director, had the grace to have things go haywire. Christine related an incident where she was measuring the temperature a large of amount of milk, which she managed to spill all over her office. Even after a very thorough clean up, she can find evidence of the spill with a drop here or there. It always reminds her “not to cry over spilled milk” because, even on a very messy day, the students got fed.

Recognizing employee contributions and their dedication to feeding kids

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Describing herself as “giddy as a kid,” Christine is thrilled about the refrigerated van that they will be getting to deliver meals to virtual students in the future – expanding on the bus routes they were able to do the last 12 months while students were out of the buildings. She was able to secure the funds from Chicago’s Fago de Chão and has big plans for the van even when most students have returned to in-school learning. The ‘silver lining’ vehicle to the SCH Department of Food and Nutrition will show up at summer feeding sites, back-to-school nights and other events for years to come.

Refrigerated van purchase with funds from Chicago’s Fago de Chã

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Caitlin and her community!

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Caitlin Lazarski, MS, RD, SNS, has been the Nutrition Director at Newburgh Enlarged City School District (70 miles north of New York City) for 7 years. The district has approximately 12,000 students, serving 7,500 breakfasts and 8,000 lunches under CEP prior to COVID. Providing meals for hybrid learners in classrooms and curbside delivery for all virtual students, the department served 250,000 meals in February 2021.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Like many of her colleagues, Caitlin Lazarski says that being able to change quickly is an ongoing challenge. While the initial months of the pandemic necessitated many changes in service models, the department is now seeing weekly shifts in participation as students return to classes – depending on weather and now daylight savings time. She is very thankful for a distributor that understands her need for flexibility, where an open line of communication is literally a lifeline!

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Lazarski is very proud of – and grateful for – newly found connections with her community. She has always emphasized the department’s connections with students (“we are the only school staff members who see every student, every day‘). During COVID school nutrition has been able to touch more families and more parts of the community. Last spring they tried their regular summer feeding distribution which did not work. Participation dropped dramatically, leading to the layoff of all foodservice staff. As a “hometown girl” (both Caitlin and her husband work and grew up in the district), she started to do more outreach, explaining the benefits of emergency meals for everyone. This did work and she has seen a ground swell of support along with increasing participation.

School Breakfast, specifically breakfast after the bell, has been a focus in Newburgh for several years (pre-pandemic breakfast and lunch participation was almost equal). Caitlin was not about to give up on breakfast excellence even with multiple service models. Breakfast in Classroom continued for in-school learners and Goldback meal kits (building on a district-wide brand) included fresh strawberries and yogurt for DIY smoothies. Clearly Newburgh School Meals knows how to Score Big with School Breakfast under any circumstances!

Goldback 10-Day Break Menu includes Heat&Eat and Kit Items

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While she acknowledges that it is not really an innovation, Caitlin hopes that her staff will be able to hold onto a new-found sense of teamwork. One ‘silver lining’ of COVID is that it changed how the staff feels about departmental leadership – they realized that Caitlin was with them, that she was fighting for them, protecting them and that she really cared about them. Working together in all sorts of challenging new situations, especially variable curbside conditions, also reinforced that everyone has each other’s backs.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year of grace for Jessica Shelly and CPS

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Jessica Shelly, MBA, SNS, REHS, is coming up on her 11th anniversary as Director, Student Dining Services for Cincinnati Public Schools, which now has 36,000 students (down from 40,000, 83.5 percent free-reduced pre-pandemic). The department provided 3.8 million meals from March 2020 through March 2021 – and is now getting ready to support in-school learning five days per week as students return from spring break.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Jessica Shelly and Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) have a well-deserved reputation as nutrition super stars in the school world: salad bars in every school packed with as much local produce as possible, going above and beyond to lower sugar and sodium in purchased products, early adoption of Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s School Beverage and Competitive Food Guidelines – list goes on and on. This was – and is – a department called ‘award-winning’ by local, regional and national agencies.

Jessica Shelly, always focused on feeding children

When COVID closed schools and disrupted food distribution channels, Jessica was again a super star. CPS Student Dining Services actually had a pandemic plan; Jessica ‘dusted’ off the folder, made updates and went right to work in her own department (and helping other districts across the country). However it quickly because clear that CPS was not going to be able to maintain all the standards that they were so proud of – starting with salad bars with multiple options of local produce! They needed to give themselves (and others) grace – to press the pause button on amazing changes and to do what they needed to do to keep food, students, and staff safe. They focused on the ‘prize’ that mattered most: Feeding all the students they possibly could with the best options available. They knew they might not be serving all the meals they did pre-COVID and that this food would mean the world to the families they could serve.

When students could not get to food, CPS took the food to them

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

By working with the CPS incident team, Cincinnati City Hall, and local companies with the demographic data they needed, Student Dining Services was able to insure that no CPS child was more than 1 mile from a food distribution point. Better still, many of these one-stop points also distributed other food and supplies for families in need – because partnerships and trusting relationships were developed as they learned to move quickly. They were also able to keep all their food service staff gainfully employed and, with more flexible scheduling, to offer more professional development leading to a better trained workforce.

Student Dining Services has maintained staff and added professional development

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Usually in Jessica’s district, like many others, it has been hard to initiate change and break out of existing molds. During the pandemic, their willingness to ‘lean into’ new ways of doing business, sometimes within hours, has made them more effective and efficient than ever before. Jessica believes that they can tackle anything as a team, that the WHAT IFS can now become realities quickly. What if we could offer winter/spring break meals, what if we could partner with the food bank, what if we support more local Ohio Proud farmers? Well now we can because our essential workers are trained, ready and willing to support student learning and success throughout CPS!

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Erin Primer, personally, professionally!

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Erin Primer, CDM, CFPP, has been Food at Nutrition Services Director the San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) for five years. SLCUSD serves 7,500 students (35 percent free/reduced pre-lockdown, now approximately 40 percent) and served 30,000 per week before schools closed in March 2020. The district is a mostly agricultural area surrounding the city of San Luis Obispo and several small towns on the Central Coast of California.

Local farms in SLCUSD provide fresh options for pantry kits

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

If you had asked Erin Primer a year ago, “Can you operate SLCUSD Food and Nutrition Services from your home?,” she would have said that you were bonkers. And yet, that is exactly what she has done. Because she is immune-compromised, Erin had doctor’s orders to stay home. She has had to provide 100 percent remote leadership for 25 employees scattered in 15 schools throughout SLO county. While this has necessitated many changes, it has worked – and worked well! From March 2020 through February 2021, SLCUSD Nutrition Services provided one million meals to district families through drive-up, curbside locations. While Erin says she occasionally feels like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, she has learned how to lead successfully and maintain trust in non-physical ways.

One challenging year, one MILLION meals provided

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Ms. Primer is proud of her department’s resilience noting that school foodservice in general has not always been known for moving quickly or for being change makers. In SLCUSD Erin now knows that they are capable of responding to changes positively and they can literally do anything. Going into lockdown, many of her staff members were understandably afraid; now they now believe in their abilities to pivot quickly and effectively – even when “the boss” is not able to be present in person. Nutrition Services staff have learned to trust Erin and to trust themselves. This has led to some remarkable transformations – in their attitudes and in the foods they serve.

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Trust is very important to Erin Primer and she has worked for five years to build trusting relationships with local families and with local agricultural producers. She recognized that the pandemic lockdown presented opportunities as well as challenges – and that school food was going to be a frontline issue for families, farmers and ranchers. SLCUSD has always offered local foods and now they are laser focused on plant-forward, climate-friendly food options. All their weekly pantry-kits are packed with the freshest food possible and multiple serving ideas even for those with limited resources.

Creativity and taste will continue to be the focus of SCLUSD pantry boxes and in-school offerings. Erin has always wanted to move vegetarian options beyond boring cheese pizza – and she taken every opportunity to serve options like Thai Basil Lentil burgers, sandwiches with Strawberry Chia Jam and Jujube Snacks along with multi-colored radishes and beets (usually very locally-grown). Students and their families have become more willing to try things out because “they trust us. We have invited so many more folks into our program with school food that tastes great and supports the community.” Nutrition and culinary education, including National Nutrition Month Drive-Thru BINGO, are an important part of the ongoing plan as SLCUSD Nutrition Services continues to expand plant-forward, planet-friendly school food.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Laura-Zelda and her RDN Team!

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Laura-Zelda S. Villarreal, MBA, RDN, LD, SNS, has been Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Brownsville ISD for 20 months – 12 months of that during the COVID-19 pandemic! Brownsville is city of 181,000 located on the Texas-Mexico border. The district serves 40,000+ students under CEP. Pre-pandemic they served approximately 30,000 breakfasts and 35,000 lunches; currently their ADP is about 10,000.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Villarreal, the biggest challenge was implementing COVID safety procedures when even the terminology was foreign. What does PPE stand for? Where do I purchase it? How can I get enough for my staff? With a million calls, strong support from the local Educational Service Center (ESC) and navigating a very steep learning curve, she was able to get the equipment and supplies necessary to keep her staff safe on the frontlines so they could serve thousands of meals daily. The accelerated learning continued with every new ‘pivot’ necessitated by ever-changing guidelines and waivers. Laura-Zelda described it as learning to turn a semitruck on a dime!

Brownsville ISD Food and Nutrition Services is full of sweet hearts!

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Villarreal is proud of keeping the department’s approximately 487 staff members employed and safe during COVID. Her leadership team had to completely rethink their meal service platforms and reach their customers wherever they needed meals. In addition to food, they have fun giveaways and engage families by providing online nutrition education and food demos. All this has required new partnerships, especially with the districts’ transportation department and their routes managed by GPS. It was made possible by over $200,000 in grants from GENYOUTH and Dairy Max, Action for Healthy Kids, Texas Department of Agriculture, and No Kid Hungry. Laura-Zelda suggested a new motto for her department: We can do THIS and THIS and THIS and THIS too!

Home delivery boxes being loaded onto school bus

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While several innovations are sustainable into the future, the Home Delivery Meal Program (HMDP) is most important to Villarreal. Many BISD families experience food insecurity because of insufficient food and limited resources to purchase more. Adapting the BISD FNS operation during COVID-19 was critical to reaching those in need. Their mantra is (and always has been): If the students cannot come to the food, we are going to do all we can to take the food to them. HMDP uses an efficient system operated by GPS software and makes online enrollment easy (watch video for details). Meal kits (5 breakfasts and 7 suppers) are delivered weekly to 500 stops soon to be 1,800 stops after Spring Break. Participating HMDP households receive a yard sign indicating the students are recipients of meal delivery and a placard allowing parents/guardians to pick-up a daily hot lunch at any curbside school. Laura-Zelda is proud to say the HMDP reinforces their commitment to the school community and plans to continue it during summer feeding and whenever it is needed. “Parents have expressed immense gratitude, and to see their faces, it makes it all worth it.”

District staff delivers HMDP signs

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Jeanne!

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Jeanne Reilly has been the Director of School Nutrition in RSU #14, Windham-Raymond, Maine, for 12 years. Her rural district serves 3300 students. Prior to March 2020, the district’s free/reduced percentage was 34 percent.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year? Jeanne’s personal and professional challenges have been intertwined. On a personal level her challenge has been exhaustion, making it hard to find a positive attitude every morning. Professionally she needed to keep her staff positive, engaged and connected to each other. She needed to keep them focused on the “Maine” goal – their core mission to feed the district’s students – while maintaining staff levels. Motivation was critical but also challenging with constant changes in learning plans, USDA waivers and personal safety recommendations. If you are reading this, you probably know these struggles all too well.

Bulk meals during COVID-19

What achievement are you the proudest of during COVID-19? Through a seemingly endless round of pivots, Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program staff have stayed flexible, open-minded and innovative. They currently serve meals in four ways (cafeteria, other areas of schools, curbside and delivery) and have maintained 75 percent of pre-pandemic participation with only 40-50 percent of students in school at any point. Jeanne is rightly proud of her team’s achievements which she attributes in large part of years’ of trainings (customer service, culinary, HHFKA regulations, etc.) and team building. Her leadership goal has been to enable her team to grasp an idea quickly – and to run with it.

RSU Superintendent observes Mobile Meals (top) and Chef provides contact free delivery

Support from the district and the communities served by RSU #14 has been vital to maintaining participation and positive perception of the program. Jeanne is proud that the program was able to build their already-strong communication channels to let their customers know that (1) we are here to provide nutritious, safe food for your families and (2) we will keep you updated on inevitable changes asap. Their strong social media presence and regular Eblasts helped to market emergency meals and to provide ongoing education about nutrition, food safety and other critical issues.

What innovation(s) have you made that you will continue using in the future? “In order to meet social distancing guidelines, we have been serving meals to students throughout our buildings – classrooms, hallways and access points. This has been very successful and we plan to maintain it in the future.” Jeanne notes that they have been able to demonstrate to teachers and administration that feeding students is essential and that serving in a variety of locations can be efficient, effective and safe.

Grab & Go Breakfast Kiosks (L) and Concession Stand becomes serving station (R)

School Breakfast Trends, Peanut Allergy Facts and Keeping Students Safe

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According to the Food and Research Action Center’s February 2020 Breakfast Scorecard, “14.6 million children ate breakfast at school on an average day in the 2018–2019 school year.” This is an increase of over 46,000 students per day from the previous year. Much of the growth has been outside of the traditional before-school breakfast in the cafeteria – using a variety of alternative models including breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go breakfast carts/kiosks, and mid-morning breakfast breaks. Changes in location have led to changes in menus with increases in self-stable, packaged, and easier-to-transport items. While there is nothing inherently wrong with packaged foods (which must meet National School Breakfast Program regulations), some districts are struggling with the perception of school breakfast as lots of sugars and other carbs.

School Breakfast Trends: The expectations and perceptions of student customers, especially teenagers, is also changing. Based on the breakfast choices they enjoy in fast food and quick-serve locations, they expect to also see options like protein boxes, grain bowls and fruit smoothies at school. Savvy school nutrition directors are upping their breakfast game to be more restaurant-like with everything from omelet bars and overnight oats to homemade cinnamon rolls and specialty parfaits. Many of these new school breakfast items are specifically created to decrease sugar while enhancing protein content. Looking for ways to make breakfast stick, school chefs are focusing on the right balance of protein, fat and fiber.

PB&J Greek Yogurt Parfait https://healthyschoolrecipes.com/recipes/pbj-greek-yogurt-parfait/

The Peanut Butter Solution: With those criteria, it is not surprising that the “peanut butter solution” comes to mind. Peanut butter is popular with students and is an affordable source of protein with healthy plant-based fiber (6% DV) and good fats. Peanut butter is also very versatile from a culinary standpoint – easy-to-use in baked goods, blended items and spreadable applications. However peanut is one of the top eight food allergens so schools must implement strategies to keep students with allergies safe at school. While some studies estimate that 2% of children are allergic to peanuts, the good news is that as many as 20% of peanut allergies may be outgrown, while new treatments are being developed and tested. The peanut industry wants everyone with allergies to be safe so they support the latest research and resources at Prevent Peanut Allergies.org.

Keeping Students Safe: The goal of school breakfast is to offer as many healthy, appealing food options to as many students as possible, while ensuring that all customers with food allergies are protected. Three important ways to accomplish this goal are:

  • Training: Ensure that all nutrition staff receive regular training on all food allergies. Everyone who works with food or in the cafeteria needs to know how to avoid cross-contamination and how to recognize food allergy reactions.
  • Planning: Careful planning is the key to preventing problems. Each student with a food allergy should have an individualized plan that include school foodservice, nurses, classroom staff and coaches.
  • Labeling: Make certain that all products containing an allergen are clearly labelled with text, photo or colors, as appropriate for the age and reading level of students. Check any new products and recipes for proper labeling. 

Need helping with ideas, webinars, training videos and more? Visit Managing Peanut Allergies and click on the schools section. You can also visit the School Nutrition Association’s Food Allergy Resource Center.

Peanut butter granola bars https://healthyschoolrecipes.com/recipes/peanut-butter-granola-bar/

Peanut Butter Recipes: Delicious peanut butter recipes for school breakfast are available through a variety of sources, including the USDA Recipe Box, state department of education resources and Healthy School Recipes.  

Peanut Butter Vanilla Yogurt Dip: https://www.nationalpeanutboard.org/recipes/schools/peanut-butter-vanilla-yogurt-dip.htm

This blog post is sponsored by the National Peanut Board. Learn more about the benefits and practicalities of serving peanut products in K-12 at PeanutsinSchools.org.

California Cling Peaches: Delicious, Convenient and Kid-Friendly

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As we wrap up National Canned Food Month and look forward to National School Breakfast Week, I want to tell you what I learned on a tour of California peach country last summer. So what is the connection between canned foods, school meals and orchard visits?

The answer is really simple, smart and delicious: California Cling Peaches (#client) are picked at peak freshness and packed into recyclable steel cans within 24 hours of leaving the trees, meaning that canned peaches offer an out-of-orchard flavor when local fruit is not in season. Popular with kids, canned California peaches can also help school nutrition programs lower costs and reduce waste at mealtimes, including school breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.

Peach Orange and other smoothies from Eisenberg and Castle Hills Elementary, Colonial School District, Delaware

Let’s explore what canned California Cling Peaches can do to make to National School Breakfast Week #FreshAsCANBe in any school nutrition program. March is a marvelous month to celebrate school breakfast (as well as Read Across America and Dr. Seuss’s birthday) – but US-grown fresh peaches are still at least two months away. No worries – canned peaches are perfect for breakfast parfaits and smoothies. They can also make tasty toppings for pancakes, waffles and French toast sticks. Peach cobblers and crisps are always popular – and if you want to get really innovative, be like Chef Becca from Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary & Wellness Services. When faced with lots of leftover cinnamon rolls due to a schedule miscommunication, she added canned fruit and created a Cinnamon Roll Breakfast Bake with Warmed Spiced Peaches. That’s a win-win-win for hungry students, school breakfast and reducing food waste.

Honestly, I see cans of California Cling Peaches almost every time I visit a school kitchen. They are often on the menu – but always in the storeroom because, as my colleague and fellow RD Neva Cochran says, they are Convenient, Affordable and Nutritious. The affordability of canned fruit allows Chad Elliot in Decorah, Iowa, schools to BuyAmerican.EveryoneWins. His schools then have the budget to serve local hamburger on a house-made bun, with local onions, cucumbers and milk, along with plenty of other veggies. Large districts, like those in the Urban School Food Alliance struggle with aging buildings and schools without kitchens. Canned fruits also help these schools with budgeting, With canned peaches as a fruit serving, Philadelphia Public Schools can serve Chicken Cheese Steak on authentic, local Philly Amoroso’s Bakery sub rolls!

Lunch trays from Decorah Community Schools, Iowa (L) and Philadelphia Public Schools, Pennsylvania

During much of the year, canned California Cling Peaches can be an even better choice than fresh fruit. For fall seasonal celebrations like Halloween and Thanksgiving, fresh USA peaches are unavailable but canned peaches are the perfect color and flavor. Layered with canned pineapple and yogurt, parfaits like these are student favorites for school breakfast, lunch and supper. When I toured California peach orchards last summer, I enjoyed the perfect flavor and texture of just picked fruit. I also saw how quickly those same peaches are packed in light syrup or 100% fruit juice to maintain as much of the fresh-picked quality as possible. When districts BuyAmerican.EveryoneWins. canned fruit from California orchards, the products are easy to store and handle, consistently high in quality and have little or no waste.

California Cling peaches on the tree and canned peaches in Yogurt Parfaits, Austin ISD, Austin, Texas

Include plenty of California Cling Peaches on your USDA Foods purchases for 2020-2021—because when you BuyAmerican.EveryoneWins. The best way to help students learn to love fruits and vegetables is to always #HaveAPlant! Questions? Answers: Buy American Provision Toolkit at https://californiaclingpeaches.com/buy-american

Back-to-School with Peanuts

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I’ve consulted with the National Peanut Board and the Peanut Institute several times over the past decade. It is a natural partnership for several reasons: (1) I love peanuts and peanut butter; (2) My two children might not have grown into strong, healthy adults without peanut butter; and (3) Both organizations base all of their materials and recommendations on the most recent science. And now I have a fourth reason: My grandson Milo, now almost sixteen months old is getting to explore the wide world of delicious, nutritious foods – and I want to make certain that he experiences new foods safely and joyfully.

The great news for new parents is that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has updated guidelines for infants at different risk levels for developing of peanut allergies. The 2017 Addendum Guidelines, based on a landmark study, are designed for use by healthcare providers and parents. They suggest that the early introduction of peanut-containing foods (around four to six months of age) can lead to a major reduction in the development of peanut allergies. I’m grateful that my grandson Milo has happily been enjoying peanut butter “puffs” for over eight months.

I’m always disappointed when I learn that a school district has banned peanuts, peanut butter and peanut-containing foods and claims to be “peanut-free.” While I understand any parent’s desire to keep their children safe, I support realistic, effective policies that prevent peanut-allergic reactions and allow the 98 percent of children without these allergies to enjoy all delicious, nutritious, affordable food options. In my professional opinion, students with and without allergies are best served by policies that are comprehensive and evidence-based. Rather than complete bans – which can be unenforceable – I favor an “allergen aware” approach to serving potentially problematic foods.

The really important reason to allow peanuts and peanut butter in schools is their natural versatility in creating nutritious dishes that students love to eat for school breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper. The recipes at PeanutsinSchools.org are excellent examples of items that appeal to kids – and help school nutrition pros plan meals that meet nutrition standards without breaking their budgets. Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Banana Smoothies, Peanut Butter Vanilla Yogurt Dip and African Peanut Stew (a tasty, creamy option for vegetarian and vegan customers) are perfect for back-to-school menu innovations. These recipes, created by HealthySchoolRecipes.com, come complete with crediting information and nutrition details.

So what can a school district do? Start a science-based discussion about food allergies that includes all interested parties – parents, students, teachers, and administrators as well as school nurses, medical advisors, and, of course, school nutrition staff. A school wellness committee or council can be an effective place to begin the conversation – about existing policies or about possible changes.

Here are five steps that make sense for all students – and are based on the latest evidence:

  1. Use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs as a template for policies. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), the National Association of School Nurses and other groups collaborated with the CDC to develop the best guidelines possible. 
  2. Educate. Educate. Educate. Keeping food-allergic students safe at school is a shared responsibility among all adults who provide care, services or oversight. This means that bus drivers, foodservice staff, teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and after school personnel should all know the signs of an allergic reactions and what to do for an individual child.
  3. Be prepared in the event of a reaction. Even with good policies and careful procedures, reactions can and do happen. For any food allergy, children need an emergency anaphylaxis plan, access to necessary medications, and adults who know how to respond. Friends and classmates can also be taught to recognize the signs of a reaction to allergenic foods.
  4. Consider whether allergen safe tables are a good option for your school. These tables have been shown to reduce epinephrine use in a 2017 study. I often eat at allergen-free tables when visiting school cafeterias – and have been impressed with the level of students’ knowledge and the caring they show for their friends. (Bartnikas L., H. M. 2017, Impact of school peanut-free policies on epinephrine administration. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 467-473)
  5. Let parents and caretakers know that your school nutrition program takes all food allergies seriously. Meet with concerned families as appropriate and share your procedures for reviewing new products, labeling menu items with potential allergens, and supporting safe celebrations. Need more facts about peanut allergies? Find everything you need at Managing Peanut Allergies.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Shannon, Katie and the A-Team!

Shannon C Solomon MS, SNS, been with the Aurora (Colorado) Public Schools Nutrition Services for 13 years. She started as a kitchen manager and rose through the departmental ranks to become Director of Nutrition Services three years ago. Katie Lopez, SNS, has been Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for five years. Pre-pandemic the district had 40,000 enrolled students – approximately 72 percent eligible for free/reduced meals – serving 26,000 lunches and 15,000 breakfasts on daily basis. When schools closed in March 2020, the “A-Team” immediately made one of many pivots to begin serving curbside locations (53) and on bus routes (17) throughout Aurora. This basic Grab-n-Go model – with a daily meal packs for all children served 10:45 to 11:30 – continued throughout the summer.

Starting October, Aurora students gradually returned to school using a hybrid learning plan. The department continues to serve curbside, on buses, and in-school meals – with their mission as their north star: Nutrition Services supports student achievement by serving nutritious, delicious, quality meals with excellent customer service. During COVID-19 the A-Team has focused on feeding students and families where they are. By the week of April 19, they will have served 7 million meals – including 9,000 Turkey dinner kits for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving dinner distribution

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Solomon and Lopez are quick to identify the overarching challenge they faced during COVID-19 – fear. Administration, educators and department employees were afraid of the virus and afraid of failing to feed children adequately. They overcame fear with a combination of transparency and trust – along with healthy doses of persistence, grit and flexibility. The Nutrition Services stayed focused on the mission of feeding kids – this is what we do no matter what. Lopez attributes much of the A-Team’s success to Shannon’s leadership style of consistency and clear direction. She has been at work every day making sure that the employees have what they need to fulfill their motto: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

In a March 2021 report, the A-Team list best practices that have enabled them to serve 7 million meals. It is worth listing them here because they illustrate that multiple factors are what makes Aurora Public Schools Nutrition Services so special:

  • Culture of open sharing of fears, doubts, unknowns and emotions (no right or wrong)
  • Grateful Challenge exercise
  • Communication, communication, communication
  • Daily wellness checks
  • Daily debriefs
  • Daily virtual huddles
  • Consistency, communication, marketing
  • Having fun!
  • Clear mission
  • Delicious, nutritious, QUALITY meals: If we wouldn’t eat it, we wouldn’t serve it!
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables daily
  • Community outreach
  • Inventory management
  • Utilization of social media
  • Menu flexibility
  • Celebrate all victories – big or small!
  • Embrace failure and daily changes
  • Adapt and pivot quickly with a clear communication process
  • Partnered with neighboring districts on all best practices
  • Partnered with local restaurants to provide a hot lunch option every other week.
  • Providing a ready-to-eat item in each bag. This often allowed families to enjoy their meal on site while socially distancing.
  • Partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado to help with the need in the community. In April, hospital staff began passing out Food Boxes to our community at APS drive-thru sites. This partnership was a game-changer for the community in Aurora.
  • Sending home Big Bag Friday with meals to sustain over the weekend
  • APS Foundation coordinated donations to cover the cost of adult meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Shannon and Katie are eager to continue meeting their customers where they are throughout school campuses. They now have grab-n-go hallways carts in every wing of many schools. Now that they have the right equipment – thanks to grants from Dairy Max – they are able to increase participation in a variety of ways. Plus, now that administrators and educators have realized meals in the classroom can work well, Nutrition Services hopes to make BIC and other classroom meals the norm.

Fulton Family Picnic in the park