School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Maria and Your Choice Fresh!

Maria Eunice, MS, SNS, has been the Director of Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services, Gainesville, Florida, for 16 years. The district has 30,000 students with a free/reduced rate of about 50 percent. Pre-pandemic the department – also known as Your Choice Fresh with the tagline Empowering Students Through Healthy Meals – served approximately 1.6 million breakfasts, 3.5 million lunches, 420,000 suppers and 680,000 snacks per year.

Cutest pick-up customers ever

During the year of COVID-19, Food & Nutrition Services was an acknowledged “shining star” in the district serving over 6.4 million meals since March 2020. Using a total of 81 sites (curbside and bus routes) during school closures, Alachua actually grew breakfast participation to 2.1 million meals. With only two weeks off in the past year, they have covered families’ nutrition needs every single day of the pandemic. With the exception of 6,500 virtual learners, all students have been in-person and eating at school since August 2020. Twenty-four curbside sites are still open for bulk distribution two days per week from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm. Every decision – like these distribution times – has been made to maximize participant convenience and customer service. If local students needed food, Alachua Food & Nutrition Services was there to provide it.

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

The main challenge identified by Maria will be familiar to nutrition directors across the country – how to make long term plans with short term waivers. While the waivers were (and are) wonderful, they often caused disruption in food and commodity orders that had already been placed for summer and back-to-school meals. Shifting gears for major pivots happened on several occasions in Alachua. They also experienced supply-chain issues for food items, packaging and even bins to use on bus routes. They thrived thanks to dedicated employees and community support.

Alachua employees make all the difference

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

Maria is very proud of the new and improved relationships within the school district and the wider community that have grown over the year of COVID-19. Food & Nutrition Services trained paraprofessionals, crossing guards and, of course, bus drivers to help with food distribution – and some have become department employees! Everyone, including the school board, has a new appreciation for the importance and contributions of the Your Choice Fresh. Unexpected assistance came in many forms; at bus route distribution points, the local police would often announce the arrival of meals and encourage families to ‘come and get it’ over their PA systems.

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

Food & Nutrition Services wants to continue growing their engagement with families around food and nutrition at home. The YC at Home (Your Choice at Home) platform has allowed them to effectively share nutrition and culinary education, reinforcing the benefits of school meals for the whole family at home. The use of QR codes is another successful innovation that they will keep using. Printing the codes onto packaging and menus has made it easy for customers to find cooking instructions and other information on the departmental website – with one click on a smartphone.

Customer service with QR codes for links to recipes and more

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