Dan Gorman and his dedicated team in a year of COVID-19!

Featured

Dan Gorman has been the Food Service Director for two Michigan districts, Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools, for 21 years. The two districts have a combined enrollment of about 3,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 47 percent. Before COVID-19 school closures, their ADP was about 60 percent for breakfast and high 60s percentages for lunch. Like thousands of his colleagues, Dan was notified on Friday, March 13, 2020, that schools would be closed starting Monday, March 16th. And on Monday, families in Montague and Whitehall could start picking up meal packs with seven breakfasts and seven lunches.

From those very first curbside meal pickups, Dan’s team has focused on making it as easy as possible for families to get the food they needed and making the quality worth the effort it took to get the food. They started and continued with a “grocery store” model, packaging pizza kits and taco meals. By working with suppliers to order was actually in the warehouse (rather than specific items with low availability), they were able to give families more food while maintaining food costs. They also worked with local Michigan Grown producers and others to purchase apples and carrots in bulk, creating 1-pound family size bags. Since schools have returned to a fairly consistent hybrid schedule, the districts have maintained a once per week pickup schedule of dinners and snacks plus breakfast and lunch when students are not in school. While participation numbers have dropped slightly, they are still sending out 1,000 meal packs per week, serving BIC and providing lunch in a variety of service locations.

Montague Pickup

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

Dan agrees with most of his colleagues that the biggest challenge for the first few months of COVID emergency meals was the ever-changing, head-spinning series of waivers and guidelines. One of his biggest concerns was how to keep their staff safe. By summer 2020 they had figured the logistics out and were able to get into a basic routine. They realized that they were operating more of a warehouse rather than kitchens which helped with the musical chairs of storing large amounts of food in accessible locations. As students returned to school, sanitation became a major challenge in terms of labor – so many surfaces in so many locations.

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

Dan also agrees with other directors here: He is incredibly proud of the food service staff in Montague and Whitehall, of how they stepped up to get the job done, even in the beginning when it was scary: “In those early months my staff were true heroes offering our families the stability and security of food on a weekly basis.” School nutrition became a true safety net for Michigan communities, taking care of the food and nutrition needs of families. Throughout it all the school nutrition employees continued doing things that were not their ‘normal’ job – not what they had signed up for – in a situation with myriad unknowns about their personal safety.

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

While it may sound minor, a simple innovation made staff’s lives easier while they were struggling to do a hard job. Switching to narrow pallets that fit through a walk-in door minimized loading and unloading, especially of bulk produce. They were able to serve lots of fresh produce with better logistics.

Packing boxes in Montague High School

Jeanne, Dayle and HOPE after a year of COVID-19!

Featured

This blog post is going to be a bit more personal than recent interviews with school nutrition professionals that I have been sharing. It is about hope after social isolation, friendship that thrives in a pandemic, and the heroic efforts of school nutrition heroes in Maine, Montana and every other state. Jeanne Reilly wrote the original post on TIPS for School Meals That Rock and created the fabulous School Nutrition Hero graphic. I have edited the following text for clarity only.

Friends in Maine

Our Thought for today is HOPE. This past week, we had the pleasure of being together for an in-person visit. Hanging with a friend, hiking around southern Maine, enjoying spring weather , chatting endlessly, and contemplating a new school year with a new round of waivers – everything felt hopeful and we were both refreshed by our visit! 

For Dayle a visit to Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program and the Mobile Meals van was her first on-site school visit since before the pandemic began. Things were certainly different: We were masked and serving meals out of a van, as well as in our cafeteria and classrooms but the simple act of returning to previously “normal” activities felt good and HOPEful. 

Windham-Raymond School Nutrition Program, Mobile Meals Van

For Jeanne, it felt good to have someone to strategize with about next year, to dig into the newest round of waivers, and someone to laugh and whine and obsess about ALL of it! Nothing like a little lobster, accompanied by a healthy dose of lighthouses, fresh Maine air, hikes and bald eagle sightings to give life and a fresh perspective full of HOPE and anticipation! 

As we look forward to next year, we have HOPE that all, or almost all students will be back to learning in person; HOPE that #HealthySchoolMealsforAll will continue to be available at no cost to students next year and beyond. We certainly know that it will be a long time before things feel 100% normal, but we have HOPE that we are on the road back. 

YOU are our HEROES!

As you know School Lunch Hero Day is next Friday, May 7, 2021. We have set a small goal of getting our TIPS for School Meals That Rock membership up to 17,000 by next Friday! Can you invite some of your friends who are not currently TIPS members? If every school nutrition hero invites one of their “essential” friends, we could meet and exceed 17,000 members in no time at all! There is strength in numbers – and the more members we have the better we can collaborate, share and inspire. We look forward to ALL your posts about your celebrations!

Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?

Featured

A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 

Cara:

Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Elizabeth and the Carson City community!

Featured

Elizabeth Snyder, DTR, has been Director of Nutrition, in Carson City (Nevada) School District for just over 2 years. Elizabeth is a district employee who works closely with the Chartwells K12 Director of Dining Services and Executive Chef. The district has enrollment of 7,900 students with about 55 percent eligible for free/reduced price meals prior to the COVID19 school closures in March 2020. Pre-pandemic the district has an ADP of 53 percent at lunch and 33 percent at breakfast. Nevada schools were closed on March 15th and by March 17th Carson City had opened five strategically located sites for daily meals plus a weekend pack, adding 3 bus routes on March 19th. During summer feeding hot meals were served at the Boys and Girls Club – and Elizabeth developed four contingency plans for the opening of school year 2020-21. None of these plans worked but Nutrition Services staff have learned to cope with constant change and focused on providing meals to those students who need it the most. Currently 25 percent of students do fully remote learning and the rest follow a hybrid schedule – with multiple types of meal service to accommodate all students.

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

Personally Elizabeth found the challenge was not knowing what to expect. She likes to have a plan and found it challenging to let go of plans A, B, C and D – and then move on to something that she had not even considered.

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

The silver lining of the Elizabeth’s pandemic is that it showed her what an incredible team she has and what a giving community exists in Carson City. The dedicated team of school lunch heroes worked tirelessly to safely prep, cook, pack and distribute meals to the children who needed them. Her managers have done an amazing job with the pandemic ‘pivot’ and are “on top of everything.” Right now they are operating three different service models out of all (10) school sites. Elizabeth is very grateful for how everyone – teachers, staff, parents, volunteers, and community members – came together and focused on keeping kids fed at schools and other sites. Several community groups and businesses provided donations, including franchises like Del Taco, Pizza Factory and Dutch Brothers Coffee.

Carson City families appreciate Nutrition Services

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

Elizabeth had two answers to this question: First, she notes that her department has gotten “really good at grab-n-go options.” They have new equipment including insulated bags so that they can do a better job of to-go meals in the future. She specifically mentioned enhanced meals for field trips – beyond the usual sandwich in a brown bag. Another silver lining during COVID-19 has been connections with the district’s media person, Dan Davis. This has helped Elizabeth get the word(s) out about nutrition services, especially the availability of free meals. Families were confused as waivers changed over time and social media was very helpful in clarifying the situation as it evolved.

District Facebook page shares Nutrition Services info with families

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Doug, Heather and Burlington’s Team!

Featured

Doug Davis, SNS, Food Service Director, and Heather Torrey, MS, RD, SNS, Assistant Director, have been working together at Burlington School Food Project for the past four school years. The district has 4,000 enrolled students with about 50 percent being eligible for free/reduced meals pre-pandemic, when their ADP was 65 percent at both breakfast and lunch. Even though both Heather and Doug were out of state when COVID-19 hit, within 48 hours of school closures they were serving meals using a completely new service model. The forty department employees were divided into pods of 10 and they started serving one bag with one day of meals curbside for approximately 500 students, plus meals for the homeless housed in local hotels (3 meals a day, 7 days per week). Both Doug and Heather admit that things were very tough in the beginning and they were able to make it through because of extraordinary assistance from other school employees, like the paraprofessionals who organized and staffed food distribution points. They also deeply appreciate the support for the Vermont state child nutrition agency and their food distributor Reinhart Foodservice LLC.

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

Doug and Heather are quick to acknowledge the operational challenges that were top-of-mind, especially in the first weeks of school closures. Like most other districts, they struggled with staffing issues, supply chain disruptions, and transportation concerns. However they also stress the underlying emotional challenges as well. Even though everyone was focused on the need to feed children, there was anxiety about a deadly disease with lots of unknowns for those who did not have an option to work remotely. Heather admits that she worried about “being the one to take out my whole team.”

Meal Kit distribution during a Vermont winter requires the right vehicles and equipment

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

The successes of the Burlington School Food Project over the past year demonstrate how a team came together, got work done and built a unique model to feed children. After a participation dip in the summer, the Burlington team is now distributing 20,000 quality meals per week in meal kits containing 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 suppers, and 7 snacks. There is a weekly vegetarian option, often based on foods reflecting the diversity of Burlington (where over 40 languages are spoken in a high school of 1,000 students). 

Although there were more unknowns than knowns over the year, Heather and Doug are not surprised about what the team was able to do. The Burlington School Food Project has worked hard to be integrated into the education process of the district and into sustainable agriculture in Vermont. In March 2021, they partnered with the local Couching Lion Maple Farm and distributed a Harvest of the Month maple syrup jug in every meal kit. The farm is owned by a teacher in the district, making more connections between education, local agriculture, and delicious meals for children. Moving forward, Burlington School Food Project plans more direct contact with Vermont farmers and food producers. Since they know that the Meal Box model will continue through September, they have started calling local farmers and food producers with a heads up about the volume the district will need so they can plan their planting and harvest schedule. “Leveraging buying power to support the local economy and provide high quality foods to our families has been — and will continue to be a core focus for our program.”

Couching Lion Maple Syrup, Vermont Harvest of the Month

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

Rather than a procedure or a food product, the Burlington School Food Project will take a mindset into the future. As Doug Davis said, “I will never look at a problem or situation and think we cannot do that. I now know that there is nothing that we cannot do. We can meet any challenge.

Heather has a slightly different take: “I went back to my dietetics basics with the ADIME model to constantly assess what we are doing and how we can make it better. We started curbside meal service with one model, saw that we were not reaching as many folks as it should, and we switched it up. Now we’re in the M/E phase of our Family Meal Kits and make subtle tweaks each week to better meet the needs of our community.”

Classic and Vegetarian Meal Kits

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

Featured

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.

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

Featured

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

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Andrea and engagement with families!

Featured

Andrea Early, MS, RD, in her 18th year as Director of School Nutrition for Harrisonburg City Public Schools. This Virginia district has 6,500 Students Pre-K through 12 grade. Pre-pandemic the district was headed toward 100 percent CEP, with an ADP around 78 percent at lunches and 70 percent at breakfast with alternative service models. During Covid19 school closures they served curbside (moving frow 2X to 1X per week in order to increase participation along with ‘door dash’ for schools delivering 500 bags via car routes. During April the district is gradually bringing students back into buildings and the department is returning to cafeteria and classroom meals.

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

Like many of her fellow directors Andrea Early, mentions employee health and safety as her biggest challenger over the past year. With many older employees and health challenges, workplace accommodations were always top of mind. Since there was no option for remote work, people had to learn how to take risks seriously, how to self-screen for symptoms, and how to make informed decisions about immunizations. Andrea is grateful to work in a district where the administration was very data-driven and provided consistent messaging to staff and families.

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

Andrea is proud that her department was instrumental in helping the entire district stay engaged with students (and their families) as much as possible. Due to the combined efforts of teachers, administrators and food service, meal curbside pickup became a big part of family connections to the district. While school nutrition had a high profile prior to the pandemic, “we were able to amplify our voice at the table.” Although participation was not what it would have been without COVID, Andrea was able to maintain staffing levels and offer an appropriate wage increase.

Teachers (in costume and not) helped to deliver meals and engage families

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

Many districts, like Harrisonburg City Schools, have developed a bigger picture of education through the COVID19 lens. As schools realize that virtual or hybrid may be better for some students, Andrea knows that her department has learned how to package and deliver meals for those students too. Large-scale, attractive, packing in bags – “we have it figured out now!”

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for April Liles and her leadership style!

Featured

April Liles, RD, SNS, has been the Child Nutrition Program Director in Waltham (Massachusetts) School District for 7 years. The district has about 5,500 students and, pre-COVID, 51 percent were eligible for free/reduced meals. They have been fully remote until two weeks ago (serving over 1 million meals) and now gearing up to have all students back in the building on April 5. This March 19, 2021, Facebook post helps to tell the year-of-COVID19 story in Waltham Public Schools: This picture was from one year ago and honestly, we didn’t know much. We didn’t know to wear masks, stay distanced or how this pandemic would change the world forever. What we did know is – WE MUST FEED THE CHILDREN! And thus – we did just that. Over and over again each week, into the summer and into this entire school year. It is what we have always done and so we moved forward together into the unknown.

March 19, 2020: 1st emergency meal service BEFORE masks, PPE & social distancing

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

As a nutrition director, April has always been focused on food and people. Her biggest COVID19 challenge was people piece – the 70 employees of her department who had not signed up to be frontline, essential ‘heroes.’ She says that her pandemic experience has been, and still is, transformative in terms of leadership style – life-changing in both professional and personal ways. April has learned how to step back, and let employees move to the front, perform and do what they have trained to do: “I am so proud and humbled by my team’s readiness to just do the work.” 

The WPS Food and Nutrition Team – in the times BEFORE Masks and Social Distancing

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

Noting that you are nothing without your team, April is proud of being able to maintain staffing and keeping entire nutrition Food and Nutrition Services on the payroll. They were able to feed the families of the city well because of their teamwork. And they have amped up their sanitation protocols in response to pandemic precautions, involving teamwork with building custodians to be “impeccably clean and sanitized.”

Teamwork is also what allowed WPS to maintain the integrity of meals delivered as curbside kits rather than on trays in cozy cafeterias. This also required letting go – no more colorful salad bars and delightful food art – and a new focus on “Build Your Own” instructions for items like parfaits and trendy tortilla hacks. April and her RDN partner Haylee Dussault continue to create home-run meal kits by introducing other on-trend items like Korean Bibimbap.

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

April is eager to expand their in-school offerings with carts and kiosks in the hallways and enhanced deliveries to classrooms. Her staff is energized to try new things and building administrators are now wanting to sit down and talk about it. Bulk meals outside school day have become a reality – for weekend and vacation meals as well as virtual learners. Of course, she definitely plans to keep the new super-sanitation procedures in place as well.

Weekly Meal Kit: Combination of prepared meals and DIY items

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Angie, Maria and Roseville schools!

Featured

Angie Richey, MPH, RD, SNS (Supervisor) and Maria Anderson, MS, RD, SNS (Coordinator) manage two public school districts and five joint agreement schools north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Their district with the highest need, Roseville Area Schools, serve 7,300 students, down a few hundred from pre-pandemic levels when 47 percent of students qualified for free/reduced meals. Since March 2020 they have provided daily meal pickups at bus stops and schools curbside, plus home delivery via two trucks and a bus (a total of 919,000+ meals thru January 2021). They are just beginning to bring secondary (7-12) students back into buildings and are planning to continue meals for virtual learners as necessary.

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

Angie and Maria agree that the “mental load” of the pandemic was a big challenge. It was difficult – and scary – to keep 80 staff members safe, feeling valued and motivated. There was also an issue with monotony: Pre-COVID the district had been digging deep into scratch cooking, processing fresh veggies and introducing new items to students. With a 3-three week menu cycle and all meals being prepacked, workers were bored – handing out meals curbside was a coveted position because you could see students! Realizing the problem enabled Angie and Maria to provide hazard-pay for some positions – and to encourage changes like relaxation of the uniform policy and smaller celebrations like Hawaii Day. A little fun went a long way to improving attitudes!

Hawaii Day lifts spirits during a Minnesota winter

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

By taking an equity lens to food distribution, Roseville Area Schools were able support a food security safety net for entire community, especially for the most vulnerable families. They were able to ensure that no students fell through the cracks – and, through partnerships, like Second Harvest Heartland food bank and Minnesota Central Kitchen (employing laid-off restaurant workers), to feed families as well with Roseville Family Table Meals. Since many families in the district had little to no kitchen equipment, Angie and Maria made the decision to provide microwaveable meals rather than kits.

Fortunately, they have still been able to use local foods from farmers and producers within 300 miles of Roseville. Their meals are loaded with local carrots, green beans, radishes, apples and more (when seasonally available). They have also been able to continue a partnership with Ferndale Market to provide local turkey wieners and hot dogs. They know that supporting local growers is even more important during difficult times when many restaurant outlets have been closed. Angie and Maria’s future plans include more direct purchasing, more local grains and processed foods, and more Minnesota Thursday meals.

Microwaveable meals introduce new products and foods to Roseville families

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

Roseville Area School Nutrition Services plans to continue a renewed focus on food security and its greater impact in the lives of women – at home and in the workforce. They plan to expand their partnership with the high school-based Food Shelf Program  to help connect families with more than just food needs. Looking forward, their motto is “if our Nutrition Services Department cannot fill a gap, we will partner with those who can.”

Winter meals bundles include new offerings to combat menu fatigue