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School nutrition operators share what’s working—and what’s not—in their emergency feeding efforts. The lessons they’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will prove invaluable in the future.

“You can’t plan for every emergency. You just can’t.” These words, uttered by Sally Spero, SNS, Child Nutrition Director at Lakeside (Calif.) Union School District, reflect what a lot of school nutrition operators know to be true—no one could have been totally prepared for what occurred this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant impact it made on school meal operations.

“You can make all the notebooks you want,” Spero adds. “I can’t tell you how many hours this school year I’ve spent in training for the possibility of a school shooting—well, that’s not helping me today, is it?”

No, there was no way to plan for this pandemic. Even those school districts that had drafted an infectious disease plan after the H1N1 scare a decade ago could not fully anticipate all the ramifications of today’s reality. Indeed, the whole country is struggling with forecasting where we will be in another month, never mind at the start of the next school year.

What we can do, however, is learn from the experience—identifying key elements and details that will help guide us in the future. Maybe that future is as soon as Fall 2020, when schools might be re-opened but with significant changes to schedules or safety protocols. Maybe that future is next winter, if governments establish new policies for flattening the curve in anticipation of a renewed outbreak. Maybe that future is five years down the road, if the world faces a totally new and unprecedented threat.

School Nutrition spoke with several school food-service directors who are already thinking ahead, reflecting on the flurry of the last six weeks (at press time), sharing what has worked well, what has gone awry and what they will change in the future to be prepared when next faced with an unexpected national emergency.

Make Documentation a Priority

In most communities, emergency feeding operations work like the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which provides meals to low-income children when schools are closed for the long seasonal break. Indeed, school districts were encouraged to use this approach—and its administrative and operational rules and requirements—in this emergency.

In school districts with experience as a sponsor or vendor (or both) in the SFSP, the school nutrition team had a bit of a leg up when it came to being prepared to serve meals during the pandemic. They had a basic structure of menus, prep needs, meal distribution procedures and administrative paperwork, albeit with evolving modifications that had to be made for social distancing and sanitation requirements, along with a much greater scope of need.

“You can make all the notebooks you want. I can’t tell you how many hours this school year I’ve spent in training for the possibility of a school shooting—well, that’s not helping me today, is it?”—Sally Spero

“One thing that’s been really helpful is that we’ve drawn on our existing SFSP forms,” Spero shares. “We didn’t have to redo the paperwork” on top of everything else.

But directors who have never participated in the SFSP before really have had to scramble and, in some ways, play a guessing game. That was the case in Coweta County (Ga.) School System, which had never run an SFSP but, coincidentally, was planning to start this year. Director of School Nutrition Keshia Williams recalls that it was a Tuesday when the school board approved her proposal to begin offering SFSP meals at the end of the school year. Three days later, her team was putting together a plan to start emergency feeding operations the following week. As of this writing, they’ve served emergency meals.

Williams and other directors without SFSP experience were at quite the disadvantage, scrambling to be sure they were even identifying the right questions, from geography to volume, to develop workable plans.

“Where are we going to set up our meal distribution sites? How many kitchens are we going to use?” recounts Williams. “We had no clue how many kids to expect. It was a true guessing game for us.”

Despite the similarities between today’s meal distribution efforts and a standard SFSP operation, there are major differences—and having documentation that details how you’re doing things today could help in the future. “As we have created [forms, menus, processes, etc.], we’ve dropped them into a shared Google Drive,” explains Lyn Halvorsen, SNS, School Nutrition Supervisor, School District of La Crosse, Wisc. “If I were to do this all over again, I’ll have those SOPs there.”

Spero says that her team is also trying to maintain detailed accounts and records about how they are running their emergency feeding efforts. “If this ever happens again in the future, they will have those materials to draw from,” she says of her eventual successors. “They could say, ‘Back in the pandemic in 2020, what did they do?’”

“As we have created [forms, menus, processes, etc.], we’ve dropped them into a shared Google Drive. If I were to do this all over again, I’ll have those SOPs there.”—Lyn Halvorsen

After all, the situation is ever-evolving. “Something that just came up recently—and I don’t think anyone thought about [the implications], is that all these teachers are setting up Zoom meetings for the students,” Spero explains. “Some of the parents are telling us that they won’t be able to come get their food [at the times we’re distributing meals] because teachers are scheduling meetings between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Nobody even thought about that.

Leverage Opportunities for Community Partnerships

In most communities, emergency school meals are being prepared and distributed by school nutrition departments as the official school food authority designated by the state agency. But a number of directors are giving credit to a wide variety of community organizations who are stepping up to lend a hand.

“We’ve had nonprofits come together, we’ve had churches come together,” Williams explains. “These people are coming out of the woodwork to partner with us any way they can. It’s been so beautiful. They don’t have to; they could easily stay at home, but they are willing to help us in any way they can.”

In particular, she says, volunteers have turned out to help distribute meals—even delivering them personally to children’s homes. This outreach helps raise awareness of how important school meals are every day, not just Monday to Friday during the school year, says Williams.

While not to diminish the genuine altruism behind such outreach, these partnerships can provide mutually supportive win-win benefits. For example, on Good Friday in Morgan County, Tenn., the Food Service and Nutrition department teamed up with a local barbecue restauranteur, who set up a pop-up drive-thru. School was “closed” for spring break, so meals were being distributed from one centralized location, explains Director Peggy Hamby. The pork BBQ served by the restaurant was part of the reimbursable meal. Meanwhile, the local radio station did a live broadcast from the site.

“We fed 1,200 kids in less than two hours,” recalls Hamby. It was a total win for the school meals team—but the local restaurant got a boost, too. After the event, his sales rose 72%!

Hamby’s doing her part in promoting the wonderful way her community is coming together during the crisis. “Every couple of days, we’re on the radio and recognizing who’s supporting us and giving them credit,” Hamby says. She’s enjoyed a longstanding partnership with the station, which has helped her promote events like National School Break-fast Week.

In addition to live spots at meal distribution sites, Hamby also regularly records blurbs for later broadcast. “I go to the radio station before it’s busy, around 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and do a recording that they use throughout the day,” she recounts.

Strengthening community partnerships might even change the way some operators coordinate summer food-service in the future. In “normal” years, Provo (Utah) School District operates a summer meals program, serving a sit-down breakfast and lunch at certain school cafeterias, using the Seamless Summer Option, which does not require enrichment activities at sites. During the pandemic, how-ever, the district has partnered with the local Boys & Girls Club of America to provide meals off-site, including supper and a snack, in a high-needs area.

“Going forward, I think I might aim to do a couple of sites where they can just pick up food instead of having to go to a school location to eat,” muses Laura Larsen, SNS, Child Nutrition Director, noting that the extra meal distribution site at the Boys & Girls Club has made a real difference to the community. “I can’t even tell you how many people have come to us literally crying—no exaggeration, in tears—just saying how grateful they are that we were doing this. I know that our meal counts are steadily going up and up every week. There is a huge, huge need for it.”

Understand When You Must Pivot

Given all of the regulations that apply to school meal service, making changes on the fly isn’t always possible. In this situation, though, operators have found that they’re having to be more flexible than ever. For example, to reduce infection exposure among staff and with the community, as well as improve production efficiencies, many districts have begun reducing meal distribution days to once or twice a week, while still providing meals for each day. This involves numerous changes in food ordering, preparation, packaging and distribution.

As news reports made real the consequences of person-to-person infection, districts realized the risks of having meal prep concentrated at one site with all team members working side by side.

“We realized it wasn’t smart to have all of the people in the same kitchen,” Halverson says. If just one person tests positive—or lives with someone who has been diagnosed—the self-quarantine domino effect would shut down the whole operation. “We’d lose everyone.” Quickly, her team opened up additional preparation kitchens.

A related challenge for some school meal operations is having sufficient labor to get the job done. “Some of my people couldn’t come to work because they have underlying medical conditions or are over 65,” Spero shares. “But there were other people who were willing to work and, frankly, some of them really wanted to work.” This meant Spero had to come up with quick food handling safety training for individuals, such as bus drivers, who had never prepped or served school meals before. “Going forward, in any emergency planning, I’d be sure to include training for other members of the school community,” Spero says.

Another pivot has come as school nutrition operations become de facto food meal programs for all kids—and sometimes adults—in numerous communities, regardless of free/reduced-price eligibility. But such changes come with a literal cost.

“Something that’s concerning to me is that we’re not covering our costs for our meals,” Halverson shares. “We have had a very nice fund balance, but if this continues on, I don’t know [how long it will last]. What is the federal government going to do? What is the state government going to do?”

“Going forward, in any emergency planning, I’d be sure to include training for other members of the school community.”—Sally Spero

Indeed, some districts are serving far more meals than they would during the same period when school is open, but others are serving far fewer—which will have an impact on reimbursements. And no one is earning expected revenue from a la carte food sales. The operational debt could be crippling for some school districts—and it certainly will impact plans for equipment purchases, marketing projects, technology upgrades and other initiatives.

Trying to stay within her budget is one reason why it’s taking Coweta County Schools extra time—something they often don’t have—to build multiple meals that meet all the required meal pattern components. “Some days are more difficult than others,” Williams concedes. “We’re using what we already have on hand—I just don’t feel like I can justify purchasing more food when I have thousands of dollars of food in stock.”

When you have ingredients on hand—either in inventory or donated from the community—you need to make use of them, even when you might not know how best to put them together. This is when having staff who are willing to figure it all out is such a blessing, Spero says. In fact, this attitude and skillset might inform changes to future hiring criteria.

For example, Lakeside Union was the beneficiary of a very large food donation when a local casino closed as a result of the pandemic. “Now, casinos and schools don’t usually serve the same things,” she remarks. They sent her operation bunches of Chinese broccoli rabe—what on earth could her team do with that? “Who is the one who is going to be creative and decide we’re going to make broccoli cheese soup with it?” Spero asks.

In the future, she’s likely going to look for employees who aren’t intimidated by such challenges. She genuinely values those who “just thrive at being creative problem-solvers,” she credits. “Those are the most valuable employees in these kinds of emergency situations.”

Improve and Support Varied Communications Approaches

You may think you have the best communications plan in the world—until a disaster strikes, and you realize that things weren’t quite as in order as you thought. “One of the first things that I am going to work on when we get ‘back to normal’—whatever and whenever that will be—is to figure out a better communications system internally within our department,” says Christine Clarahan, MS, RD, SNS, Director of Food and Nutrition Services, School City of Hammond, Ind. “I have spent hours upon hours calling and texting and emailing our department staff because we do not have a good system for how we communicate when we are not all physically in the buildings.”

Some members of your team might need a training or tutorial on how to check their work email accounts via smartphone, Clarahan advises. Or it means making a different pivot. Spero says that, in the future, she’s going to obtain and compile all of her staff members’ personal email addresses.

“I’ve spent more time having to call them individually,” she explains. “If I could send out an email blast, it would be faster, but there’s no use in sending messages to their work email if they can’t access it.” Clarahan also plans to work with her staff to seek input and ideas on the easiest way she or managers can communicate with them, whether it’s via email or by posting YouTube videos that they can watch.

Honing your communications channels outside the school nutrition operation—and outside your school district—is important, too. It’s a lesson Spero learned during previous disasters: Always keep a list of suppliers’ phone numbers and contact information at home, not just at the office.

“I always felt like I tell my staff often how much I appreciate them, but this scenario has made me make an even-more conscious effort to tell them how much they’re cherished, more than just once a week. That sounds pretty cheesy, but it’s true.”—Keshia Williams

Spero has also found that this crisis has opened up new ways to communicate with families. “All of your normal marketing channels have disappeared—like, poof!” she exclaims. But then she realized that she could tap into the various community networks of her staff to help get the word out about emergency feeding efforts.

“[My staff] might be in a parent soccer group or a church group, and they were the people that the others in the group knew and trusted,” she says. “We post information on our website and send out FAQs, but it’s [more resonant] if another soccer mom emails you and says, ‘Don’t forget: Meal service starts on Monday, at 11 o’clock, and your child must be present.’”

Praise Your School Nutrition Staff

If there’s one undeniably positive takeaway from this pandemic, it’s the value of committed team members. In every interview with School Nutrition, district directors praised their staff for their dedication during the crisis.

“If it wasn’t for them, none of this would have been possible. They are the heroes in this,” Williams says. “I always felt like I tell my staff often how much I appreciate them, but this scenario has made me make an even-more conscious effort to tell them how much they’re cherished, more than just once a week. That sounds pretty cheesy, but it’s true.”

Kelsey Casselbury is SNA’s Content Director.

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