School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Hannah in Kansas City, MISSOURI!


Hannah Thornburgh RD/LD, has been a Supervisor/Dietitian in Kansas City Public Schools (KSPS), Kansas City, Missouri, for 16 months. The 100 percent CEP district has about 15,000 enrolled students. Before pandemic school closures, ADP in the district was approximately 80 percent for lunch and 50 percent for breakfast. When KSPS schools closed in March, the district started serving curbside meal packs (one to three days at a time), then closed completely for a month to develop a service model that could serve as many students as possible. Meals on the Bus was created with the transportation department and a goal of having every student no more than a mile from a school meal distribution stop – 190 stops throughout the city. Breakfast and lunch were distributed daily plus weekend meals on Friday (and on days when weather was problematic). Although participation was lower than their traditional in-school service, Meals on the Bus (along with targeted home deliveries) were eventually serving about 75 of usual district meals.

Meals on the Bus for Fall semester 2020

On March 8, 2021, KCPS students started returning to school gradually using a two-day hybrid model. In-school meals include BIC, grab-n-go, and Café in the Classroom (for lunch). Hybrid learners have take-home meals on Tuesday and Friday, on Wednesday curbside bulk meals are distributed to remote learners. Meals in the Classroom (MIC) have gone smoothly because BIC had been the usual mode of service in 15 of 34 districts schools.

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

Imagine being a new-to-school-nutrition menu planner during the constantly changing environment of waivers and safety precautions from March 2020 through today. That has been Hannah Thornburgh’s year of COVID-19. Coming to school nutrition from a non-profit education position in Operation Food Search in St. Louis, Hannah not only had to learn menu patterns and components, but she also had to learn how to change them with an evolving set of waivers – sometimes on as weekly basis – almost like a Rubik’s cube of menus! Hannah also had to develop new supervision and employee management skills during a time when staff assignments had the potential to be life-or-death situations. Perhaps her toughest challenge was how to keep a positive attitude in new city under lockdown conditions!

Menu for hybrid high school meals, April 2021

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

Although her pandemic year has been plenty stressful, Hannah is grateful to be working in a department where food security and equity are top of mind. Knowing that you are a community lifeline means making “how to reach more people” has been part of every departmental discussion leading directly to initiatives like Meals on the Bus. She is also focused on growing the department’s Facebook page – another way to get the word out by engaging families, district leaders and other stakeholders.

EQUITY is even on their t-shirts

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

Meals on the Bus will continue as a part of KSPS meal service – likely for summer feeding. It has become an essential part of equity in their district a way to serve the best possible meals to families that need them. Hannah also plans to increase social media – perhaps with a nutrition education channel on YouTube.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Caitlin and her community!


Caitlin Lazarski, MS, RD, SNS, has been the Nutrition Director at Newburgh Enlarged City School District (70 miles north of New York City) for 7 years. The district has approximately 12,000 students, serving 7,500 breakfasts and 8,000 lunches under CEP prior to COVID. Providing meals for hybrid learners in classrooms and curbside delivery for all virtual students, the department served 250,000 meals in February 2021.

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

Like many of her colleagues, Caitlin Lazarski says that being able to change quickly is an ongoing challenge. While the initial months of the pandemic necessitated many changes in service models, the department is now seeing weekly shifts in participation as students return to classes – depending on weather and now daylight savings time. She is very thankful for a distributor that understands her need for flexibility, where an open line of communication is literally a lifeline!

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

Lazarski is very proud of – and grateful for – newly found connections with her community. She has always emphasized the department’s connections with students (“we are the only school staff members who see every student, every day‘). During COVID school nutrition has been able to touch more families and more parts of the community. Last spring they tried their regular summer feeding distribution which did not work. Participation dropped dramatically, leading to the layoff of all foodservice staff. As a “hometown girl” (both Caitlin and her husband work and grew up in the district), she started to do more outreach, explaining the benefits of emergency meals for everyone. This did work and she has seen a ground swell of support along with increasing participation.

School Breakfast, specifically breakfast after the bell, has been a focus in Newburgh for several years (pre-pandemic breakfast and lunch participation was almost equal). Caitlin was not about to give up on breakfast excellence even with multiple service models. Breakfast in Classroom continued for in-school learners and Goldback meal kits (building on a district-wide brand) included fresh strawberries and yogurt for DIY smoothies. Clearly Newburgh School Meals knows how to Score Big with School Breakfast under any circumstances!

Goldback 10-Day Break Menu includes Heat&Eat and Kit Items

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

While she acknowledges that it is not really an innovation, Caitlin hopes that her staff will be able to hold onto a new-found sense of teamwork. One ‘silver lining’ of COVID is that it changed how the staff feels about departmental leadership – they realized that Caitlin was with them, that she was fighting for them, protecting them and that she really cared about them. Working together in all sorts of challenging new situations, especially variable curbside conditions, also reinforced that everyone has each other’s backs.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year of grace for Jessica Shelly and CPS


Jessica Shelly, MBA, SNS, REHS, is coming up on her 11th anniversary as Director, Student Dining Services for Cincinnati Public Schools, which now has 36,000 students (down from 40,000, 83.5 percent free-reduced pre-pandemic). The department provided 3.8 million meals from March 2020 through March 2021 – and is now getting ready to support in-school learning five days per week as students return from spring break.

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

Jessica Shelly and Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) have a well-deserved reputation as nutrition super stars in the school world: salad bars in every school packed with as much local produce as possible, going above and beyond to lower sugar and sodium in purchased products, early adoption of Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s School Beverage and Competitive Food Guidelines – list goes on and on. This was – and is – a department called ‘award-winning’ by local, regional and national agencies.

Jessica Shelly, always focused on feeding children

When COVID closed schools and disrupted food distribution channels, Jessica was again a super star. CPS Student Dining Services actually had a pandemic plan; Jessica ‘dusted’ off the folder, made updates and went right to work in her own department (and helping other districts across the country). However it quickly because clear that CPS was not going to be able to maintain all the standards that they were so proud of – starting with salad bars with multiple options of local produce! They needed to give themselves (and others) grace – to press the pause button on amazing changes and to do what they needed to do to keep food, students, and staff safe. They focused on the ‘prize’ that mattered most: Feeding all the students they possibly could with the best options available. They knew they might not be serving all the meals they did pre-COVID and that this food would mean the world to the families they could serve.

When students could not get to food, CPS took the food to them

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

By working with the CPS incident team, Cincinnati City Hall, and local companies with the demographic data they needed, Student Dining Services was able to insure that no CPS child was more than 1 mile from a food distribution point. Better still, many of these one-stop points also distributed other food and supplies for families in need – because partnerships and trusting relationships were developed as they learned to move quickly. They were also able to keep all their food service staff gainfully employed and, with more flexible scheduling, to offer more professional development leading to a better trained workforce.

Student Dining Services has maintained staff and added professional development

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

Usually in Jessica’s district, like many others, it has been hard to initiate change and break out of existing molds. During the pandemic, their willingness to ‘lean into’ new ways of doing business, sometimes within hours, has made them more effective and efficient than ever before. Jessica believes that they can tackle anything as a team, that the WHAT IFS can now become realities quickly. What if we could offer winter/spring break meals, what if we could partner with the food bank, what if we support more local Ohio Proud farmers? Well now we can because our essential workers are trained, ready and willing to support student learning and success throughout CPS!