From the Depths of Despair

Two New Orleans school districts share their story of agony, pain and, ultimately, hope as they rebuild their foodservice programs following Katrina.

New Orleans school foodservice post Hurricane Katrina Two and a half years have passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in one of the country’s deadliest, and most costly, natural disasters. The city is attempting to regain its grandeur, but some things will never be the same. Several parts of the city are still rebuilding, including the city’s three school districts. Their foodservice programs are part of that rebuilding process. 

“We are basically back,” says Pat Farris, director of school foodservices for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Not 100%.” The district now serves 26,000 lunches each day, down from 36,000 before Katrina, at 83 sites, 25 fewer than before. Enrollment is down 9,000 students to 39,000. “We had so many schools that were completely destroyed by the storm,” Farris says. “We have 20 that will probably never reopen.”

When the storm hit, many families fled the city, and many areas were closed by law enforcement and government agencies for several weeks after the storm. Many have not returned. That exodus has posed a major problem for those, like Farris, who are trying to get their programs back on track.

“Our biggest challenge is staffing,” she says. “Probably 25% of the community has still not returned.” Pre-Katrina, the district employed 550 foodservice staff; now, there are 450 employees. Farris says turnover is high because many people are still displaced. “I hate to use the word stress,” she says, “but there is a lot of stress.”

Rosie Jackson, child nutrition director for the New Orleans Public School District (NOPS), has also seen numbers dwindle, but for different reasons. After Katrina, the 120 schools that made up the district were divided, with about 80% taken over by a new superintendent in a new district. Poor test performance was the deciding factor behind which schools were removed from the NOPS, Jackson says. They also happened to be some of the most damaged schools in the storm. Of 120 schools that were at one time in the NOPS, only 74 have reopened. Today, the New Orleans Public School District has only five regular schools, and 12 district charter schools, which receive funding from the NOPS but have their own governor’s board.

For Jackson, everything has been about downsizing. As a result of the redistricting, she now provides 5,200 meals per day to 5,500 students at 11 schools, a far cry from the 50,000 meals she served daily before Katrina. The foodservice staff is down to 44 from 475. Unlike Farris, Jackson has an overabundance of unemployed staff members because those who worked in a school that now falls outside the NOPS domain were often not hired back by the new management. While it might seem logical for those out of a job in the NOPS to look to the Archdiocese foodservices, Jackson says that because the district is not run by the state, the employees would lose the years they had built up to be able to retire with full payment.

Losses: Twenty-five of the kitchens in the Archdiocese of New Orleans were destroyed during Katrina and only seven are being rebuilt. In addition, more than $300,000 worth of food and paper products was lost, because the schools were well stocked with supplies. But that doesn’t begin to compare with the cost of lost equipment, which Farris estimates to be around $6 million.

For Farris, rebuilding the seven cafeterias is a $3-million project—$2 million from a Catholic Charities USA grant, plus $1 million from the school foodservice funds. So far, five have been finished. One of the remaining two schools will be rebuilt 45 miles from where the school originally stood because damage to that area was so severe.  

One blessing, she says, is the large geographic spread of the district, with schools located 70 miles north and south of New Orleans, which spared the district some damage. “We had 35 schools that weren’t affected to any great extent by the storm,” she says. “They lost power—and all the food—but we were able to get those schools up and running very quickly.” However, clean up was messy. If a school was not damaged and had lost only power, employees, with help from the National Guard, had to clean out freezers and walk-ins full of spoiled food.

In the NOPS, Jackson says, “Fifty percent of the schools I provide foodservice for had severe damage, and the other 50% had mostly water damage.” Four of the five schools in the NOPS have been re-equipped and are fully operational. Six of the other district schools she provides foodservice for had severe damage. “It’s a work in progress, and we still have renovations,” she says. One of her schools will undergo extensive roof and flooring renovations this summer.

Several of Jackson’s schools are in leased buildings until repairs are finished. “We have a ways to go to getting these schools up to code. We’re just making do and doing patchwork to make it conducive for learning.”

One of the frustrating things for Farris is that because the destruction was caused by rising water, only flood insurance covers the damages, which most of the schools in the district did not have. “Had the roof blown off, we would have been covered,” Farris says. “Had a tree fallen in, we would have been covered.” Farris applied for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but that was denied. FEMA is, however, helping to rebuild the school buildings, although it is not covering food losses. 

Jackson has had different issues with FEMA and insurance monies. “FEMA said spend the money first and then we will reimburse you,” she says. “But where do you get the money to even start the process?” The first step was submitting an inventory. For food only, Jackson estimated the loss at about $1 million. Problems arose when FEMA and insurance agencies looked at disbursing refunds. That $1 million covered all 120 schools, of which Jackson has 17 now, but the NOPS paid for all that food before the redistricting. So who is entitled to the money—Jackson or the new school district?

Starting over: Farris served her first meal after Katrina on Sept. 15, just 17 days after the Category 3 hurricane made landfall. Restarting meal service was not easy. First, Farris had to find food. Two of her major suppliers were out of commission—one would eventually relocate to Baton Rouge. “We called distributors and said, “What do you have and what can you have delivered?” and that’s what we served,” she recalls. Many of the vendors lost trucks and staff as well, so food was delivered to one location and the school managers would travel to pick up their share. That went on for at least the first month with Farris and her staff spread out among four makeshift offices. Farris was in Baton Rouge, the purchasing agent was in Houston, the accountant worked from in her home in a suburb of New Orleans 15 miles away, and another office was set up 60 miles south of New Orleans. In January, they moved into a small conference room in one of the Archdiocese’s retirement homes.

New Orleans school foodserviceAt one of the damaged schools, Farris brought in two 18-wheeler trucks to assemble a makeshift kitchen for the 400 students. One truck housed a freezer and cooler, the other had limited cooking equipment and dry storage. The principal poured concrete for a slab and a tent was erected for students to eat in because the cafeteria was damaged.

For Jackson, the process to begin serving again was greatly hindered by the redistricting. Before Katrina, her annual budget was $23 million; now, it is $3 million. “Because we are so small,” Jackson says, “it is hard to find vendors who want to do business with us.” One of her vendors travels from Baton Rouge to bring goods, because many local vendors either haven’t returned to the city or won’t do business with her. Consequently, she is paying at least 25% more for certain items, such as milk. At the beginning of the 2006 school year, the foodservice department joined a co-op to help with procurement of USDA items, such as ground beef, turkey, cheese, eggs and tomato products. “We had to refocus and rethink the way we do business,” she adds. 

Jackson served her first meal post-Katrina on Nov. 23, 2005. “It was such a great day in light of all the devastation we had gone through,” she says. “I felt that if we got just one school opened, others would follow, and it would show parents we were serious.”

A new normal: Before Katrina, the schools in Farris’ district had a traditional hot service line, with an option of a sandwich, salad or potato bar. Now, because of staffing, only the traditional hot lunch is offered at all but 10 of the schools. In the archdioceses, Farris says, schools do not close or combine when the enrollment drops, like it did after Katrina, which means she has many schools with smaller enrollments.  Breakfast was temporarily cut after Katrina due to limited staff. By December 2006, Farris says most of the schools’ breakfast programs were running again.

In the NOPS, Jackson serves the same number of entrees choices—four—as she did before the storm, but she has increased the number of days she offers fruits and vegetables from three to five, as well as adding greater variety. For Jackson, the time since Katrina has been about adjusting to a new structure and pushing through painful memories. “Realize that what you do today, may also end today,” she says.

Farris puts it this way: “We kept thinking, ‘well, it’s been two years, and we are going to be back to normal.’ We now call it the new normal; we will never be back to the old normal. There are those of us who are still running on adrenaline, and that’s what it takes.”



A look at other operators in New Orleans.

Ochsner Medical Center: Wayne Sciacca, director of food and nutrition services

Beds before Katrina: 550
Beds post Katrina: 1,050 (Ochsner purchased three community hospitals)
Foodservice staff: Two years after Katrina, more than 80% have left
First meal back: Never closed

The hospital sustained structural damage and power loss, but water never crossed the thresholds. Sciacca felt it was the duty of the hospital to continue serving not only the patients, but also the staff, the staff's families and the community. Every day he provided three meals and a gallon of fluids to each of the estimated 4,000 people living in the hospital, in addition to FEMA, police, fire and other personnel in the community. Meals were provided free of charge for employees for nine months. "The facilities that closed had a very difficult time reopening because their employees had scattered," he says.

"There is no way to succeed in these catastrophic events without a plan in advance," Sciacca says. The hospital now has two wells for drinking water-there was one during Katrina-and has placed everything, including the air conditioning units, on emergency backup power. "I know if we had to do this again, we could do a better job," he says.

Tulane University: Lisa Norris, assistant director of dining and vending services (Sodexo)

Students on meal plan before Katrina: 2,300
Students on meal plan now: 2,696
Foodservice staff before Katrina: 200
Foodservice staff now: 130-150
First meal back: Jan. 16, 2006

Most of the residential dining rooms were not greatly affected by the storm, according to Norris, but because the university was without power for five months, she says moss was hanging from the railings "like green icicles." The foodservice department was renovating its retail operation, so it was set up in a temporary facility when Katrina hit. In a stroke of luck, Norris says hurricane glass had just been installed-the wrapping was still on-in the windows during the renovation. "They did their job," she says. "We had very little we had to redo.

"Our toughest nut to crack is labor," she adds, because many people were displaced and home insurance rates are high, which hinders some from returning. Norris says it took about a year and half for the foodservice department to get back up and running completely. "One of the biggest things I learned was to improve communication," she says. "We do text message training now because during the storm we couldn't get phone calls out but we could text message."



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