Feeding students can be a logistical challenge even under normal circumstances. As the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close or operate modified schedules, food service directors are running multiple programs to meet students’ needs — curbside pickup, on-site meals in classrooms and gymnasiums and packaged items to take home for “off days” in a hybrid model.
At the Shenendehowa Central School District in Clifton Park, New York, once-bustling cafeterias only seat a fraction of the district’s 10,000 students across 13 school buildings. Grades 7 to 12 are operating on a hybrid schedule, while K-6 students attend five days a week.
Once the source for preparation and distribution, the Shenendehowa Central cafeterias have transitioned to unconventional delivery methods. Food is dropped off outside elementary classroom doors. Multiple food stations are scattered throughout middle and high school buildings, limiting the number of students picking up food before returning to their desks to eat.
Social distancing is further accommodated in gymnasiums with desks spaced six feet apart and numbered, both to deliver the meal ordered and for contact tracing.
“All the food is prepackaged with plastic wrap or in plastic to-go containers, and cups with lids are for safety precautions and to limit spills in untraditional eating spaces,” said Katy Headwell, the district’s food service director.
Research has shown the link between lunches and academic and social success in school. With food insecurity increasing and the challenges of rapidly changing school environments, school leaders and food service directors alike are redesigning cafeteria programs to continue feeding students.
Developing logistics solutions
In a typical lunch block, students would get in line, grab a tray make their food selection and eat in the cafeteria. The pandemic shift to most students eating in the gym, classrooms or at home upended not just that process, but also garbage collection and other logistics typically contained within the cafeteria.
“We sat down with each principal and shared some ideas [and] asked what they were thinking about to determine the best serving areas so the kids didn’t have to travel so far, and how to make it easier on teachers and custodial staff who were already overloaded,” Headwell said.
For in-person classrooms, a shared Google spreadsheet was created to collect orders, with each teacher assigned a tab and recording orders at the start of the school day. The custodial staff has also been included in planning so they follow the food service delivery schedules to pick up garbage and sanitize areas strategically.
“Being able to change and be flexible when we found that something that looked good on paper but didn’t work so well has been key,” she added. “Dr. [Oliver] Robinson [the district’s superintendent] is so open to ideas and says give it a try to see what works.”
Finding ways to utilize owned or contracted buses for home meal deliveries is also key during the pandemic. Elizabeth Bouchard, the food service director for Franklin County Technical School in rural western Massachusetts, worked with her superintendent in March to design a delivery route using contracted bus services.
She said she anticipates it is only a matter of time before the school is closed again, and she and administrators are discussing how to serve 570 students who are spread across 540 square miles using either school-owned vehicles or contracted services.
“Being able to change and be flexible when we found that something that looked good on paper but didn’t work so well has been key.”
Food service director, Shenendehowa Central School District, Clifton Park, New York
Now, the challenge is maintaining community relationships. Other schools within FCTS’ service area questioned its delivery of food in the spring, and it has received phone calls about what plans are for a future shut down.
“We are not trying to be in competition with the other schools, but other schools have already reached out to me to find out what we’re planning to do,” Bouchard said. “We may have to have more limited stops that are specific to our own enrolled students with preorders.”
Not only has COVID-19 meant new logistics for serving meals, but school leaders also anticipate significant financial losses. Results from a new School Nutrition Association survey revealed that 54% of responding school districts reported a financial loss in school year 2019/20 and a "harrowing" 62% anticipate a loss this school year.
Encouraging teachers and food service staff to work together can help bridge the gap between socially distanced cafeterias and the classroom. In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended free meals to include all children for the entire 2020-21 school year without requiring waivers or proof of income. It is one measure to inform parents that meals are free, but that doesn’t always translate into action.
Scheduling daily announcements and asking teachers to remind students food is available for everyone when they take orders are key ways administrators can help food service staff boost participation.
“We are shoving breakfast in their face as they enter the building,” Headwell said. “That has been huge, even in the elementary school where we’ve seen numbers go through the roof.”
Headwell was invited to a high school class to speak about safety precautions the kitchen staff is taking to hep protect them from the virus. The ServeSafe-certified instructor said many of the protocols they are following are precautions they have always followed, but educating students encourages participation in the meal programs.
Meanwhile, Michigan made it easy for students to find school meals after shutting down in March. The state’s Department of Education launched an interactive map noting sites where students could pick up food.
Partnering with the community
Just outside of Denver, Jefferson County Public Schools serves about 82,000 students, 30% of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Pre-K through 5th grade students are attending five days a week, while grades 6th through 12th grades operate on a hybrid schedule with a 100% remote option.
The district is relying on its food service program to feed students on-site and through packaged meals for remote learning days. But Beth Wallace, the district’s executive director for Food and Nutrition Services, said they are ready to re-implement community partnerships forged at the peak of the pandemic if schools are forced to close again.
Working with hunger organizations and food banks across the area to coordinate food distribution increased access to students, Wallace said. Her team organized and promoted remote pick-up sites, and outside groups were given space to distribute boxes of food and backpack food services.
Clearly communicating the products the school was offering and the resources available made the program wildly successful, she said. But, she advised: “Be really clear about what you can and can’t do. We were already short on staffing and told them we could set a tent for them next to us, but we didn’t have the staff to deliver.”
Networking with other school leaders and food service directors can also uncover best practices and creative approaches to finding cafeteria solutions that work despite coronavirus pandemic challenges. Resources like Arkansas’ “Food, Fun and Creativity in the Time of COVID-19” and peer professional networking groups offer platforms for sharing solutions and discussing options.
Being part of the planning
Schools that have been most successful at transitioning food services to accommodate changing guidelines and schedules have a partnership between administration and food service leaders, administrators said. Districts that are struggling are ones where school meal service were an afterthought once a reopening had been developed, according to Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.
“Having the support of our administration made the difference,” Bouchard said. “Not everybody thinks it is important to include us, but we are a vital piece of operations. I can’t imagine trying to figure out how to feed everybody without the administration’s willingness to include us.”