Food service directors: It’s a win-win for school districts, families
Editor’s note: Yesterday we examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to extend waivers and flexibilities for school meals -- and the need it fills. Today, we talk to a couple of food service directors who are on the front line.
Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque are conducting classes in-person every day and also providing families with the option for 100 percent distance learning. Marie Miller, director of food and nutrition for the school system, is responsible for making sure 1,900 children, from 8-week-old babies on up to high school seniors, are well nourished for success in school.
“We serve meals at seven sites, including two childcare centers, three elementary schools with early childhood, a middle school, and high school,” Miller said. “The high school location also operates a curbside grab-and-go meal program, and any child 18 and under is eligible for meals.”
“The Summer Food Service Program has a different meal pattern than the National School Lunch Program and a notable difference is the flexibility with the types and colors of vegetables we serve,” Miller said. “We also don’t have to track meals to charge to individual student meal accounts which helps streamline meal production and delivery.” This also allows children to be able to be served allowing for greater distancing.
One of the waivers allows parents to pick up grab-n-go food for elementary, middle, and high school students. The process is smooth, safe and efficient, and helps offset food or grocery costs to families. Miller notes that in-school meal participation has increased.
“Due to the pandemic, supply chain instability has noticeably impacted food service, as well,” Miller said. “We have to accept substitute products which can cost more. The waivers provide more reimbursement dollars per meal which helps keep school food programs running even with elevated costs due to supply chain disruption.”
A prime example is the cost of gloves used when preparing and serving meals. Typically, a case containing 1,000 gloves costs $22.28. Currently, a case of gloves costs $141.91.
In addition to adapting to an unpredictable supply chain, employers also find themselves having to constantly pivot in relation to the labor force because workers are having to reorganize their lives according to the challenges they face due to the pandemic, and employers must continually evaluate the best use of employees based on a landscape filled with moving targets.
“Greater meal reimbursement from the extended waivers help offset labor costs and keep staff employed and utilized,” Miller said. “With the additional sanitizing, disinfecting, additional serving locations including classrooms, additional labor is necessary. And, if schools need to switch to total distance learning, we can still reach all students through the grab-and-go program.
“These days, it’s a mystery of what is going to happen next week,” Miller said. “You can be going along and then boom, it may be necessary that a school door closes. With the Summer Food Service Program waivers, we can react more quickly and effectively to meet the nutrition needs of our schools and communities. My dad always said that we live in a land of plenty and there is never an excuse for any child to be hungry.”
Glenwood Community School District consists of about 2,100 students, with two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. The district’s nutrition department serves breakfast and lunch, has participated in the USDA Summer Food Service Program for the past 25 years, and in this unprecedented year served close to 110,000 meals from March through the end of July.
Terry Marlow, director of food service for Glenwood Community School District in Glenwood, understands very well the challenges during a pandemic -- of safely, reliably and efficiently providing meals in a district where most students attend classes in the school buildings while others opt for online learning.
Marlow quickly discovered, at a time when social distancing is paramount, a tally system whereby meals are counted when served worked best for elementary students receiving breakfast in a cafeteria setting. A tally system eliminates the need for individualized, close contact interaction with a student at check-out and, instead, counts meals received by students.
“We realized that at that age, we needed to get close to students to hear and understand them,” Marlow said. “With the administering flexibilities provided by the program, the tally system eliminates that unique problem in our current circumstances.”
For lunch service, one elementary school’s nutrition staff delivers meals to students in their classrooms, while the other elementary school has students walk to the cafeteria, pick up their lunch, and return to the classroom to eat their meal.
Marlow describes a different process being implemented at the middle school.
“Students go through the line, which has plexiglass dividers, and use hand signals, like thumbs up, thumbs down, to communicate with the cooks about food choices,” Marlow said. “Then they move on to the next cook, have their I.D. scanned, and go sit apart at desks or tables in the cafeteria or commons areas.”
Marlow adds that desks previously stored or unused by the district are now utilized to provide distance seating at mealtime.
Students at the high school also receive their lunch tray at the end of the food line and then eat in the cafeteria or in an outside hallway with four students per table.
And there’s also curbside, grab-and-go meals being served for 20 minutes each day for online learners.
“At curbside service, students don’t need to say anything or touch anything,” Marlow said. “We just scan the barcode on the student’s card.”
Marlow is passionate about the many benefits for districts and families because of the flexibilities embedded in the extended waivers.
“The area eligibility waiver got us going and opened up our ability to serve all students in the district,” Marlow said. “The pre-approved waiver allowed us a quick turnaround, so in March we began serving meals just two days after school was out. The non-congregate meal waiver permitted us to keep kids separated, serving them in classrooms, or having caregivers pick up meals for our offsite, virtual learners.”
Marlow said with waiver flexibilities the district could order more trays and carts in June and July rather than waiting until August, when such supplies might be limited or entirely unavailable. He also underscored the importance of the meal pattern waiver, saying it was “huge.”
“The meal pattern waiver afforded us flexibility at a time when certain food items were in short supply and we could not get them due to supply chain issues,” Marlow said. “We are still able to have five meal components, but the meal pattern flexibilities help us manage timing and ordering complexities, which helps us bring our meal counts up.”
Marlow emphasized the extended waivers help the labor force by keeping people employed. Additional nutrition staff are needed, including substitutes, for meal preparation, packing meal components, delivering meals to various sites, washing trays and lids, and extra cleaning and sanitizing.
“When our superintendent first announced the extended waivers, within two minutes I received my first phone call from a parent,” Marlow said. “The parent said, ‘Now we can make ends meet, we will make it. Thank you!’
“I want families to know this is for everyone and they should take advantage of it. Everybody should utilize it. It is free for everyone and helps all families during a very challenging time.”