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

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.

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