Food Services Department focused, determined to keep students fed during COVID-19 pandemic

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Whether Westerville students are in school or working remotely from home, they need to be fed. 

For the district’s Food Services department, it has meant adapting to the ever-changing environment this school year, from how they plan menus to adjusting their operations to ensure students have the meals they need.

Manager of Food Service and Purchasing Kari Dennis said that preparing meals with a cohort of students in school, another cohort at home, and those enrolled in Westerville Virtual Academy has sometimes been difficult. However, her staff has risen to the challenge.

“The staff, the ones that work in food service — much like anyone in the district — they always rise to the challenge,” she said. “It’s ‘What do you need us to do and how do you do it?’”

For the department of 96 employees, food service staff members report to their buildings to prepare food and serve breakfast and lunch to students. In between those times, they are packaging a series of items throughout the week — frozen goods, shelf-stable items, fruit cups, juice boxes and produce — that make up the weekly bag of food for students. When the department provided a Saturday morning meal pick-up to better accommodate families, the staff adapted their schedules to make it happen.

The department has been constantly pivoting since Gov. Mike DeWine shut down schools in March at the start of the pandemic. At that time they immediately set to work to resolve how they were going to feed students, identify available resources, and determine who could partner with them to overcome obstacles.

Food Services staff at Genoa Middle School package food for students' bagged meals.Dennis noted that one of the greatest challenges has been to create menus that use available food items, but also striving to ensure that students across cohorts have similar options that balance their preferences. Food Services ended up creating the same menu for two weeks for Cohort A and B students while maintaining a separate menu for those attending WVA.

Last spring, the food services staff gathered at Westerville Central High School so they could meet social distancing guidelines while packaging bagged meals for distribution.

“When you are in a kitchen with a big production going on, oftentimes you are shoulder-to-shoulder,” Dennis said. “We have had to work really hard to adapt to work six feet apart.”

The department partnered with school counselors to better connect with families and understand their needs. They also worked closely with the district’s Transportation Services to ensure meals could be delivered to students’ homes.

Dennis said the department reviewed its efforts to improve operations for the 2020-21 school year, which started remotely. However, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided families had to opt-in for school breakfast and/or lunch during virtual or blended instruction at the start of the year, her staff worked with counselors and community groups to spread the word about the changes to ensure students could receive meals. The USDA ultimately decided several months later that students could receive free school meals through the end of the school year, removing the requirement.

In a typical school year, the district serves 6,500 federally-subsidized meals per day. This year, despite their ongoing efforts to communicate the availability of meals, families have requested only a third of that number. 

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” Dennis said. “It feels like we’re missing people and I don’t know how and I would like to figure it out.”

The department continues to work closely with school counselors, who have closer connections with students and families. Saturday meal pick-ups have enabled food service staff to provide meals to a growing number of families.

Food Services staff stock packaged meals for families during a Saturday meal pick-up. “I’m so proud of the work that they are doing,” Dennis said. “It’s harder and more stressful than it ever has been in the past, but they show up and get it done. The students are here for education. We’re here to feed them.” 

The department’s focus and determination has started to pay off. During their first Saturday pick-up in October, they provided a week’s worth of meals for only 197 families. Just one month later, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they distributed more than 1,000 bagged meals for students in Cohort A, Cohort B and those attending WVA.

They organized a meal pick-up on Dec. 19 that provided two weeks’ worth of meals for winter break. Given the demand experienced that day, they have prepared 1,000 meal bags for this coming Saturday’s first come, first served meal pick-up.  

To date, the department has provided 482,397 meals to students since the start of the pandemic. They prepared 201,332 meals for families in the spring when the buildings were shut down. So far this school year, the number of meals total 281,065. 

“These individuals who work in the Food Services department here are committed to what they do,” Dennis said. “It’s not always easy. It’s not always sunny and 75 but it feels like it at the end of the day.”