“It’s the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done”: How School Nutrition Pros Meet the Challenge to Keep Students Nourished During Crisis

By: Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD

School nutrition professionals do an amazing job of feeding our nation’s children every school day. Many also feed children through the summer months through the Supplemental Summer Meals Program. They serve lunch, many also serve breakfast and snacks, and some even serve supper. This equates to tens of millions of meals served every day.(1)

In schools around the country, cafeterias work like well-oiled machines. They are often the largest foodservice operator in a community and serve hundreds or thousands of meals in just the span of a few hours every school day. Students stand in orderly lines and select their prepared meals, quickly entering and exiting the cafés newly nourished with the energy to learn.

But what about when school doors unexpectedly close and education goes 100% virtual? During the current pandemic, schools have had to rapidly adjust to help meet the needs of their students. Even though school isn’t in session in person, students are still hungry – and a hungry child will have an extremely difficult time learning in the classroom and at home.

In Burke County, Georgia, school nutrition director Donna Martin says that working in this current environment is “the hardest thing” she’s ever done. Staffing is a challenge as many employees have children at home themselves or are elderly or immunocompromised and unable to work. They’re also spending more money to pay their staff and to buy necessary equipment for meal deliveries, such as coolers, additional packaging, gloves, and wipes. In spite of the challenges, Martin and her team are serving 5,000 meals a day Monday through Friday, including breakfast, lunch and supper to her hungry students at sites around her county. She says peanut butter is a mainstay on her menus and she’s serving both homemade peanut butter sandwiches and Smucker’s Uncrustables every week. Martin says she chooses peanut butter because it can be prepared the day before and, with so many meals to prepare, the staff can only prepare one item per day. Peanut butter, unlike some other sources of protein, holds well and is something the kids love.

Many districts are mimicking their summer feeding programs, a way that they already help keep kids fed when school is out in the summer months. In Hillsboro City Schools, Hillsboro, Ohio, the food and nutrition team has fired up their HCS Tomahawk food truck. The truck offers free lunches and bags with breakfast items to children around the city at eight locations. For the 11 days they served meals in March, they served 9488 meals! Each day, they offer students the option of a hot lunch each day, or their choice of a PB&J or yogurt meal. Jennifer Walker, SNS, school nutrition director for Hillsboro City Schools says, “Many families have lost their jobs and some of them have shed tears with us. We also bring some stability during this unprecedented time – they are counting on us and we are here for them.” She praised her staff reporting they would be devastated if they couldn’t feed their students.

Another way that schools are helping meet the needs of hungry students while schools are shuttered is to provide supplies of food that can be prepared at home. The Windham Raymond School District in Maine does not qualify for the summer feeding program, but they still have families at risk for food insecurity. Instead of providing prepared meals, they ramped up their existing donor-supported backpack program (which sends students at risk for food insecurity home each weekend with a supply of food). Three bags of groceries are provided by pickup (or delivery for families quarantined) for families and include fruit and vegetables, shelf stable items like peanut butter, cereal, and a bag of milk and yogurt. According to Jeanne Reilly, school nutrition director for the district, they are currently serving more than 300 children each time they’re open for pickup. To help families utilize the products provided, Reilly and her team are uploading educational how-to cooking and food preparation videos on their Facebook page, including Quick & Easy Peanut Butter Energy Balls. “We are trying to engage families and keep them eating healthy during this time.”

School nutrition programs are a key part of our nation’s efforts to address and reduce child hunger in the U.S. throughout the school year and beyond. During this time of uncertainty and challenge, they are rising to the challenge, continuing to innovate and provide support and much needed nourishment to millions of children across the country. We know that in a normal school year, peanut butter is a fun and delicious offering on the school menu. At this time, it is an even more important part of what districts are doing, offering a shelf-stable source of protein in a tasty and affordable package. Kudos to these school nutrition programs and to thousands of others for helping fill the gap for their students.

All images courtesy of Donna Martin.

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