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

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!

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