“Food is nourishing,” said Craig Locarno, food service director for the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, when asked why it’s so important that students continue to have access to school meals during the shutdown. “I always say this, and I’m gonna continue to say it until I stop working in school food service. Food is just as important as English and math and history. It’s part of our culture, and we need to provide them something great.”
Last Friday, May 1st, was National School Lunch Hero Day. This year the name feels especially apt, as school food employees have continued to go to work so that local kids can stay safe and well fed at home. Vital Communities spoke to three local food service directors about the challenges of providing food during a pandemic. For all of them, the solutions came through collaboration between food employees, teachers, bus drivers, and volunteers.
When schools shut down in March, quick adaptations were needed to keep producing food in a safe way. “Both of our kitchens [in Bethel and Royalton] are older-style kitchens, so there’s not a lot of extra room,” said Willy Walker, food service manager for the White River Valley School District. “We had to take a real strong look at how to break that up, how to reschedule people, split up their times in the kitchen, times in our cafeteria, and set up separate prep stations outside of the kitchen.”
Employee safety goes beyond maintaining physical distance. Gretchen Czaja, food service director for the Windsor Central Unified District, added that staying healthy is just as important. “Masks and gloves, that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is making sure that you’re sleeping and staying hydrated, and making sure we’re taking care of each other.” She ensures that her employees, who are currently all working together out of Woodstock Union High School, understand that by staying healthy themselves they are keeping students safe.
Once the food is prepared, the final hurdle is getting it to families. Every district is finding a unique solution. In Windsor, Hartland, and Weathersfield, meals are packaged centrally and then sent out to families on school buses. In Bethel and South Royalton, parents pick up the meals at the schools, which operate as “open sites,” free for anyone under 18. For students in Woodstock, Killington, Barnard, and Reading, there is now an “open site” at the Woodstock Elementary School. Additionally, paraeducators have been using their own cars to deliver meals to students enrolled in free and reduced breakfast and lunch. “We put a big spreadsheet together and then they figured the routes out on Google Maps,” said Gretchen. “It’s just amazing, the massive team effort that went on to switch gears during this crisis and be able to get food out to our most vulnerable families. And it was the relationships between the special education department and the food service department that really allowed that to happen.”
“It’s truly been a community effort,” echoed Willy, describing the process in Royalton and Bethel, where volunteers have been helping to package while his teams prepare the meals. “I’m always so moved by that. If it wasn’t for my staff and the volunteers and the teachers that come in to help out, none of this would have ever happened.”
It’s not only physical nourishment they are supplying, either. By providing food, schools are also providing stability, an important and elusive commodity in the midst of a crisis. “When people get back to me, they’re thankful for the normalcy that we’re giving them,” Willy said. “The routines for the kids, even just of having the milk cartons, are so important.”
Craig added that he thinks the work being done now will have a lasting effect. “It’s all about community. And I think this is a huge opportunity to build trust in our students and in our community that we’re here for them and we care for them. The struggle we always have in school food service is getting the buy-in that we have a quality product. So they’re gonna see that we’re serving them good quality and good tasting food, on a daily basis. And I think that’s gonna have an impact.”
For many families in the Upper Valley, the impact has already been felt. So although National School Lunch Hero Day has passed, keep thanking the folks who make sure Upper Valley kids have a daily meal, and a milk carton too.
By Henry Allison. Photo of food prep at Woodstock High School courtesy of Gretchen Czaja. This and other similar stories can be followed at #communitiesfeedkids.