School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Laura and the superheros in Wamego!


Laura Fails started working in USD 320, Wamego, Kansas, in 2005, becoming Food Service Director in 2008. The district serves about 1,600 students, with approximately 25 percent qualifying for free/reduced-priced meals. Pre-pandemic the district served    1,000 to 1,200 lunches and 350 breakfasts. In early March 2021, Laura was at LAC in DC with several other Kansas directors and the state Child Nutrition director. Returning to Wamego and a busy weekend of planning, her department began feeding students in the park, one day after the school district decided to close. They prepared meals for 500 students, feeding 175 children the first day; participation grew and grew as waivers came in, and soon they were serving over 900 children a day. In September 2020, the district returned to in-person learning with the option of remote learning. Currently all breakfasts and some lunches are served in the classroom with delivery to about 45 remote-learning students.

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

Laura’s biggest challenge was keeping so many details organized and tied together. Keeping her staff motivated, encouraged and supported required a tremendous amount of energy especially with constant pivoting. Any cheerleader will tell you that the job requires a lot of energy, especially when routines, schedules and everything else is constantly changing. Laura reports that it helped her to realize that there was more than just one way to do things and to witness the amazing team work that developed among those working together. At some points during COVID19, she had just as just as many volunteers as paid workers, including former students, parents and community folks.

Kiwanis volunteers Roland and Ruth Miller for help distributing remote meals

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

Covid has made a real difference in how the community sees and supports school nutrition programs in Wamego – so much so that the Food Service Department received the Wamego Chamber of Commerce Impact Award for 2020. She is gratified that local groups and agencies now understand the value of school meals and are open to partnerships and collaborations. A relationship with the local library has grown into a literary programs with books, make-and-take recipes and nutrition videos. It started as small seed and has grown into something that will benefit the whole community.

USD 320 Food Services recognized with Chamber of Commerce Impact Award

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

Being able to serve breakfast in the classroom (BIC) has been a major innovation in USD 320 and Laura is planning to continue the program in all schools. Prior to the pandemic there had been pushback, especially from teachers, but now many school leaders can see how well it can works with their own eyes – and how much it can benefit academic performance. Before 2020 the school district had never been a sponsor for summer feeding. Now the program is theirs – and they were able to expand offerings to small outlying communities and delivery routes last summer. Laura hopes to maintain the expanded programs to serve more children in the mornings and over summer break.

Breakfast carts encourage students to grab-n-go to their classroom

Hunger Does Not Take a Summer Vacation

When Michelle Barber (aka Dairy Mom RD) asked me to be part of an American Dairy Association Northeast campaign called #ThisIsWhyWeDairy for #JuneDairyMonth, I said yes immediately. This is a #sponsored post, but make no mistake: It is about one of the most important summer nutrition and education issues in the US. Here is why:


FREE Summer Meals are designed to fill the nutrition gaps for the millions of hungry children who are eligible for free- and reduced-priced school meals. However, according to the Food Research and Action Center[o]nly one in seven children who ate a free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2016-2017 school year were reached by the Summer Nutrition Programs in July 2017. This means that millions of children are missing out on key nutrients they need to keep growing strong all summer long. Without nutritious fuel for their brains, they may also be susceptible to the ‘summer slide,’ the recognized decrease in student’s academic skill level when school is out.


Joey loves summer meals in Cherokee County, Georgia

This post from Cherokee County School Nutrition shows one way to make sure kids have access to FREE summer nutrition. Joey IS smart and adorable and he can enjoy free breakfast and lunches in one of 14 sites in Cherokee County School District. However, some children can’t #BeLikeJoey because they do not have a way to get to the school, church, park, or community center where FREE meals are served. The NYC Department of Education is tackling the problem with on-trend meals, colorful graphics, smartphone apps and food trucks to serve FREE breakfast and lunches at hundreds of schools, pools, parks and libraries.

NYC Summer Meals

New York City Goes ALL OUT for Summer Meals

What do Summer Meals look like across the US? In New York City, they serve bagels, egg sandwiches, organic cereal and New York yogurt for breakfast — with deli sandwiches, cold wraps, kid-friendly kale salads, New York apples and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies for lunch. Every FREE meal comes with refreshing milk from New York dairy farms. In Fairfax (left below) and Loudon (right below) County Schools outside Washington, DC, offerings are similar — tasty, healthy and packed with the nutrients that kids need, like calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Remember these meals are FREE to everyone 2 through 18 — no registration, no documentation, no paperwork!

VA Fairfax LunchVA LCPS Lunch

Many Summer Meal sites serve much more than a FREE breakfast, lunch or supper. They also offer fun activities focused on literacy, math and other skills so that children can eat, play AND learn! It’s simple to learn about FREE Summer Meals in any location in the US: Just text 877-877 with a zip code OR address/city/state. Want to increase the meals you serve with additional activities? Check out the FREE toolkit available from Sacramento (CA) Summer Meal Collaborative and United Way at!CA Toolkit

For a True School Nutrition Hero: A Letter of Reference

To Whom It May Concern:

It is with great pleasure that I write this letter of recommendation for Doreen Simonds, currently Manager for Nutrition Services in the Waterford, Michigan, School District. I have interviewed Doreen multiple times over the past several years and carefully followed her outstanding work in Waterford. Ms. Simonds’ program has been featured in many of my presentations, as well as in several pieces that I have written for the School Nutrition Association (SNA). These include the 2011 Make Fuel Up To Play 60 Work For Your School Nutrition Program toolkit and mostly recently a June 2012 article for SNA’s Magazine on Putting the Power of Fuel Up to Play 60 to Work for YOU.

Without a doubt, Doreen Simonds is a true school nutrition hero and one of the leading school nutrition directors in Michigan today. Any district would be lucky to have her unique combination of professional dedication, business savvy, and programmatic creativity. As 25+ year nutrition veteran in Waterford, she oversees school meals and other nutrition programs in twenty buildings for an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students – and with exceptional enthusiasm. Here are three of the many reasons that I recommend Doreen for a position in your district.

First, COMMITMENT to children: In Doreen’s world, it really is all about feeding hungry kids. In describing her first venture into USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) this year, she wrote: “We really pulled together the SFSP in a huge rush (we just applied to do it under a month ago). I felt compelled not to wait and did a huge push for it. Every time a mother comes up to me with tears in her eyes and says  “I don’t know what I was going to do this summer to feed my kids…thank you so much for doing this!”  I know the struggle was worth it!!!

Secondly, CREATIVITY in marketing: Everything that Doreen does is infused with creativity. Her talents, abilities, and 30+ years as a wedding photographer all come together in the positive brand she has created with the WSP Depot Cafe, its life-sized mascot Diggin Diesel, and the Tracker Tray Train, designed to help kids understand and enjoy all the components of nutritious, delicious school meals. It’s no wonder that Waterford’s maintains impressive levels of participation – and that Doreen’s district has been recognized with multiple HealthierUS School Challenge awards, as well as an invitation to celebrate with Michelle Obama on the lawn of the White House (Doreen is fourth from left).

Finally, COLLABORATION with others: Every time I talk to Doreen Simonds, I hear much more about the folks she works with than about her. This is a woman who clearly knows how to “play well with others.” She takes advantage of every opportunity to collaborate with other programs, like Michigan Team Nutrition and Fuel Up To Play 60. She is always eager to talk about how her successes are the result of others hard work: “In Mason Elementary, we have a teacher ‘champion’ who goes all the way, so we have 60 to 80 kids at the monthly meetings. We’ve seen a huge increase in breakfast and lunch participation – and their fruit intake is unbelievable! The kids have helped with taste tests, like whole grain waffles, and United Dairy Industries of Michigan provides super support and lots of wonderful materials.”

Seriously and sincerely, Doreen Simonds is a school nutrition hero and you want to have her on your team!   Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

Summer Meals: Feeding Hungry Bodies and Hungry Brains

June 13th was a very important day for many children in Billings, Montana. Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Billings Public Schools’ Summer Food Service Program, AKA lunch in park 2012. For many low-income children and their families, it will be a day to celebrate because, sadly, hunger does not take a summer vacation.

For many children, the end of the school year is the beginning of a summer filled with fun and relaxation. However, for a significant number of families in Montana and across the USA, summer is an especially difficult time of year. During the summer months, children from low-income families do not have access to school breakfast or lunch and their families may have a hard time putting enough nutritious food on the table. In these situations, Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) can fill a critical nutrition gap.

In his weekly column kicking off  the Second Annual National Summer Food Service Program Week (June 11th to 15th)), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained the importance of  USDA’s summer meals for kids. “Proper nutrition is critical for a child’s ability to learn, grow, and be ready to achieve their dreams – and hunger is one of the most severe roadblocks to the learning process. Lack of nutrition during the summer months may set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins again and can make children more prone to illness and other health issues year-round.”

Thanks to Billings Education Foundation, generous donors, and dozens of volunteers, for six weeks this summer hungry kids in Billings, Montana, can feed their minds as well as their bodies during lunch. Reading Rocks provides guest storytellers, individual readers, and free books to children across the city. This past week, to kick off Reading Rocks for 2012, members of Billings Action for Healthy Kids (BAFHK), a local coalition advocating for children’s nutrition and fitness, were guest storytellers. They read deliciously fun books about eating smart and talked with kids and their families about tasty foods choices that help you grow strong and stay well.

Eating at home or taking a picnic to the park for your kids this summer? Reading about nutrition can help them enjoy good nutrition too. Here are four books recommended by this summer’s BAFHK guest readers. You can check them out at your local library, favorite bookstore, or online booksellers.

  • I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato, by Lauren Child
  • Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert
  • Mama Provi and The Pot of Rice, by Sylvia Rosa-Cassanova
  • Bread and Jam for Francis, Russell Hoban