The nutrition team at Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., had just one weekend to make the switch from normal meal service to grab-and-go sites and mobile meals when schools shut down in March due to COVID-19.
Unfazed, staff sprang into action and began operating 65 meal sites, serving around 18,000 meals a day within a few weeks. Expanding on a foundation of communication and teamwork, the nutrition team is relying on staff members’ strength and synergy as it plots the meal program’s future. Read on to see how.
Figuring out the future
As of mid-June, “our district has begun the discussion about what the options might be [for the fall] but has made no decision yet,” says Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services. “We're just trying to consider all of the varieties of ways that we might be offering meals, and then we'll pick a plan when we know more about what it’s going to look like.”
No matter what the final plan is, the menu will be simple and, at least for the first couple of weeks, revolve around familiar dishes made with ingredients that the district has in stock, says Dan Ellnor, assistant director of the district’s nutrition center.
The dining team is also hopeful that its experience running breakfast in the classroom programs at some schools will give them with a leg up when it comes to the possibility of serving meals outside the cafeteria come fall. “When we started [breakfast in the classroom], we had a lot of conversations with stakeholders like custodial staff, teachers and principals,” says Terina Edington, assistant director of school and community nutrition services. “A lot of the concerns that we’ve taken care of regarding breakfast in the classroom can carry over to our lunch meals as well.”
Still, the team believes it may be a challenge getting schools that do not currently operate such programs onboard with serving meals outside the cafeteria, as some can find classroom meals messy and disruptive.
Staying in touch
Communication with other district departments will be essential, Bauscher says, and as officials continue to map out their plans for the fall, she is making sure that the foodservice team has a say in the decision-making process. “We must be at the table when those decisions are made,” Bauscher says. “In other words, the district cannot allow principals to come in and say, ‘This is the way I want foodservice to work in my building.’ We have to say, ‘No, here's how it's going work.’”
The nutrition team is also prioritizing internal communication. Each week, Bauscher sends out a newsletter to keep the team up to date. “I think one of the biggest worries is the fear of the unknown for our employees and our department,” Edington says, “and we think that [the newsletter] helps tremendously.”
Doubling down on communicating safety procedures is another big focus, Ellnor says. The district recently had a number of custodians say they would not return to work when they were supposed to due to safety concerns. “Over 200 [custodians] called out and said, ‘We're not coming back to work. We don't feel comfortable.’ So, with 1,000 employees in our district, we're going have to be very hyper vigilant in indicating those safety pieces,” he says.
Making peace with gray areas
Ellnor says that the team is still working out what those safety measures will look like come fall, but they will build upon elements already in place for summer feeding, including ensuring social distancing and making face masks part of the uniform.
For now, Ellnor says that he and his staff are taking things one step at a time, and he advises other school districts to focus on their decision-making based on what information they do have. “Identify what you know and what you don't know, and begin acting on what you know,” Ellnor says. “Like I said with my team: ‘We know what the first two weeks have to look like, so let's work on that elephant one bite at a time.’”
Ask the FSD: Julia Bauscher
Q: What is one reason your team has been so successful when dealing with COVID-19?
I'm very fortunate that we have a big team; everybody has their particular role and they are all excellent at what they do. I just have a great team that works very well together. We certainly have learned, again, the importance of communication, and we help each other figure things out when it's difficult.
Q: What are some things you’re personally doing to help prepare for the upcoming school year?
I, for one, have been consuming as many articles and participating in as many webinars as possible about these topics, so that we can learn as much as possible about how other districts are handling it and pick up tips for best practices or best serving methods, etc.