School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Chad and the Decorah Community!

Chad Elliott, has been the Nutrition Director and Culinary Specialist in Decorah Community School District for 10 years. The district has an enrollment of 1,600 students (approximately 20 percent) in a town of about 6,000 in rural northeast Iowa. When school were closed, the Decorah team packed 5 lunches and 5 breakfasts for pick up and delivery. The nutrition department also delivered meals to families in need when bus drivers were not available. Decorah schools have been back in session full-time since January 2021 with a few families still picking up five day meal packs for remote learners. Participation has not yet returned to pre-COVID levels and Chad is hopeful that they will be able to get back to full-service nutrition next year.

Homemade breakfast pizza with juice and yogurt

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Chad, the availability of product was the biggest challenge for their department over the past year. When they needed non-perishable, pre-portioned meal components, they could not get them from their main purveyor. Disposable items for packing food items were also in short supply and unpredictable when ordered. Fortunately northeast Iowa is a mecca for local food and the Decorah Community School District (DCSD) is fortunate to have locally produced foods on their menus every day. When products were unavailable from their usual distributor, local farmers and producers provided items through the Iowa Food Hub that the school could use in grab and go bags. These items included cheese curds, yogurt, meat stick, and a variety of vegetables.

Local farmers and producers provide products for bulk meals in 2020

DCSD had extensive school gardens and grow houses that provided produce for school meals in years past. Production from these programs suffered during COVID but Chad and his staff are eagerly looking forward to onions, Bibb lettuce, beet greens and many herbs this spring. DCSD has been famous for many scratch-cooked items; these herb bread and rolls served on April 8, 2021, shows that the tradition continues.

Bread and rolls with parsley and thyme

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

I cannot express how proud I am of our nutrition staff,” says Chad Elliott. When fear of the unknown was rampant, the nutrition employees stepped up and selflessly changed their work schedules and hours so meals could get prepared and handed out to families in need. When schools shut down for remote learning, nutrition staff remained flexible and continued to build meals each day for deliveries to students, often using their personal vehicles each day due to the lack of available bus drivers. Nutrition department employees have clearly embraced one of Chad’s favorite Martin Luther King’s quotes: The time is always right to do what’s right.

Decorah nutrition employees

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Before COVID-19, Decorah had done minimal cross-training in the district’s six kitchens. Over the past year, they increased their cross-training by necessity – in order to maintain service throughout the district. Cross training is now something that they use to open up staff to new strategies, positions and ways to get things done. It has given employees a new perspective and appreciation for the work being done in other kitchens.

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