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

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

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