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

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

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