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

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.

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