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.

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Holiday Fruits and Veggies = FUN

Social media has been full of holiday food art. Even ChooseMyPlate.gov got into the act with a very fun snowman sandwich on popcorn snow next to a pea pod tree. While there’s plenty of cute Christmas sweets and treats floating around out there, I’m personally most impressed with the already-very-busy ‘lunch ladies’ and food dudes who go out of their way (maybe on their own time) to make fruits and vegetables special for children. This wonderful winter scene came from Maureen Williams Voll, at Saint Patrick School, Terre Haute, Indiana. I know that Maureen struggles to find even a few minutes for art, so this is all the more impressive: “A little holiday food art before we head off for vacation. The kids have been asking for food art, as we haven’t done any in a while. Our gift to them, and they LOVED it!

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick's School, Terre Haute, Indiana

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick’s School, Terre Haute, Indiana

This simple broccoli Christmas tree was decoration on the serving line at West Chatham Elementary today in Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, Georgia. Thanks to Director Lydia Martin for proudly sharing what her staff had created.

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

Flat Veggie Trays have been very popular on Pinterest, including the School Meals That Rock Christmas Food Fun board. These two come from districts at opposite ends of the country – Coppell ISD in Texas (L) and South Haven in Michigan (R). Easy to make – and very fun for students!

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

School lunch can be very festive without being ‘arty’ both this Greek Pizza from Mast Way Elementary Oyster River Child Nutrition, New Hampshire, and the Broccoli Salad from Shaw School, Millbury, Massachusetts, are deliciously colorful examples. Thanks to every school nutrition professional for preparing beautiful, delicious and often fun food for hungry children. Enjoy your winter break – we hope some cooks for you!

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts