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Institutional Dining: School Districts Prepare for What’s Next

Exactly what the fall semester will look like for schools is still blowing in the wind. School districts around the country are struggling to find the best solutions to keep students and staff socially distanced and safe during the ongoing pandemic, while ensuring that students don’t fall behind in their studies. 

 At this moment in time, the White House is advocating for school districts to open, but the three largest school districts—Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta—say they will begin the school year entirely online, according to the Washington Post. The board of education for California's Orange County district, however, is supporting opening schools without the social distancing or masks, the LA Times reported. 

Opening schools, of course, also benefits the economy since it helps working parents return to their jobs or work from home without the extra stress and distraction of having to homeschool their children at the same time. 

While there has been a lot of conversations around the topic of the fate of the school year, Tami Borgen, St. Louis Park School’s nutrition director, said in mid-July that nothing has been decided yet for her district. Like much of the country they are in a wait-and see mode, while waiting for guidance.

Mark Augustine, culinary manager and executive chef for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said they’ve been given direction to come up with plans that would cover three scenarios: “back-to-school services under COVID; full-distance learning; and a hybrid of the two scenarios.” Governor Tim Walz was scheduled to announce his decision on Minnesota schools’ reopening the week of July 27 (after our deadline).

In an article by The Counter, an award-winning food blog, Bertrand Weber, director of the Minneapolis Public School’s Culinary and Wellness Services,  talked about the effects of COVID-19 on his district, which meant having to suspend sustainability projects that had been on tap for the fall.

“We were about to embark on a two-month pilot at three high schools on plant-based protein,” he said in the interview. “So that’s on hold probably for another year. And we were increasing the amount of share tables in order to minimize food waste. We know that’s going to go away for the time being. We were rolling out bulk milk. That’s going away as well, because everything has to minimize cross-contamination and possible spreading of diseases."


Bagging lunch

Things that will change when students do return to dining at school will be more than just the infamous lunch break, second only to recess as the highlight (or lowlight) of the day. One casualty will be the loss of salad bars, which have long been a popular way to feed vegetables to students. There will be more disposable cutlery and dishes, and perhaps, the end of socializing at the lunch table. One solution may be to have students pick up bagged lunches and return to the classroom to eat, perhaps even during one of their classes.  

A scenario for breakfast, the author of The Counter article said, is the culinary staff cooking and delivering the food to the classroom before the kids enter. That would mean providing breakfast for everyone, however. 

And what do you do with students bringing in their own lunches and who pays and who doesn't?

Students are already used to eating bagged lunches from the summer program, said Minneapolis Public Schools' Augustine. Once classes were canceled in the spring and the stay-at-home orders given, the district pivoted to a new model of distributing food to its students. 

“We started using the central kitchen for brunch bags—one breakfast and one lunch,” Augustine said. Once they received waivers from the USAD which gave them the green light to distribute individual meals, they switched to packaging five days’ worth of the two meals. “Before the George Floyd situation we were at 200,000 meals a week,” he said. That number fell off, but “we’re still averaging 140,000 meals a week.” The meals are for students, but Augustine said, the family most likely is sharing them as well. 

“We’re busier now than we would normally be for a typical summer,” he said. The district has 50 locations from which they are handing out the grab-and-go meals.

Last year the St. Paul Public Schools served 300,000 meals for the entire summer program. This year, since mid-March to the middle of July, they’ve already hit the 5 million mark, Stacy Koppen, direction of nutrition services told TV-station, Kare 11.

The St. Louis Park district has also been busy delivering summer meals from three sites. Since June 8 to mid-July, they’ve distributed 11,000 breakfast/lunches, Borgen said. 


What will change

Some of the changes at the Minneapolis district—in addition to the use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and socially distancing staff—is that instead of preparing kettles of food, they’re doing “a lot of piece work,” such as 10,000 sandwiches a day. They also purchased new equipment that would allow them to box meals quicker.

 But they miss cooking food. 

“Pre-COVID we were making our own salad dressing from scratch…marinara sauce…and also packaging individual meals for schools without kitchens,” Augustine said. Now meat-and-cheese sandwiches are the main meal. “We got away from salads 'cause it’s a seven-day (box)” and food safety, as well as following the USDA guidelines for nutrition are key to the program.

“We don’t feel normal yet, but we have created a routine,” Augustine said about the food production. Some precautions for staff are to stagger the start and end times of the teams and to double the break room, although some staff prefer eating their lunch in their car. 

“I think people are forgetting what normal is,” he admitted. Although the adjustments and changes have been a huge group effort. “The leadership team has been amazing and flexible,” he said, adding they couldn’t have kept up with the demand without the hard work of the staff. 

Now it’s just waiting to see how the new drill works when—and if—you add kids back into the mix. 

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