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.
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.
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.