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As curbside meals continue, K-12 operators brace for winter

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While some schools welcomed back students for in-person learning this school year, curbside meal sites continue to be commonplace at districts throughout the country. And with COVID-19 cases shooting up again this fall, school nutrition operators are anticipating that they may go into full remote learning once more. 

“We're fearful that perhaps we may have to roll back our phases and close the schools again,” says April Liles, foodservice director for Waltham Public Schools in Waltham, Mass. 

But unlike in the spring, staff working the feeding sites this winter will be battling the cold and snow.

Liles and her team have begun implementing short-term solutions this school year to keep staff safe from the elements as the weather shifts, but they are also looking at longer-lasting solutions with the expectation that curbside feeding won’t be going away any time soon. 

Planning for the long term 

To avoid staff being in the cold for too long, the Waltham nutrition team has already limited meal pick-up to once a week in the early afternoon. They are also actively brainstorming other long-term plans that they hope to roll out in the coming weeks. 

“I like to consider myself an innovator and I try to think of different ways on how we can combat the weather and think of opportunities for us to say, ‘How can we do this curbside model forever in a way that makes sense?’” says Liles. “'How can we invest our money wisely or our resources wisely to sustain and maintain this not only through the winter but maybe into next school year, or, you know, in many school years to come.’” 

Simply moving feeding sites indoors and having parents and students come inside to grab meals is not an option, says Liles, so the sites must be outdoors in some capacity. 

"How can we do this curbside model forever in a way that makes sense?" -April Liles

“Maybe in other districts and states, they may be more aligned for folks to come in to pick up meals, but in Waltham specifically, it's not likely, as far as parents or community members coming in and picking up meals for kids,” Liles says. “So we have to be outside in some way, shape or form.”

One idea the team is leaning towards is setting up the sites underneath a tent close to a building, which would allow staff to backfill them from inside. Parents and students could then get out of their cars, grab the meals and leave. 

“Right now, everybody's staying in the car with a mask on, and then we're opening doors of cars or trunks, but that’s tough in the middle of the winter,” says Liles. 

Laying out the logistics 

Regardless of which plan the nutrition team implements in the next few weeks, logistics will play a starring role. Liles and her team met to discuss how to best proceed with their meal sites after Waltham received a bout of cold weather and rain earlier in the month. 

“We’ve had to sit and think and draw this out,” says Liles. “We literally white boarded out seven or eight different ways that we could get cars in and out flow-wise.” 

Having the district’s resource officer in the room while planning has been essential, says Liles, and she recommends that fellow operators think about who else in their district they should include. 

“I would encourage [K-12 operators] to put the time in and really think through these types of logistics because it'll only help with the food access and help with the flow,” she says. “That's key really to kind of sustaining the program because we can't stop the weather from coming.”

Reworking for the winter 

Based in Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools is no stranger to the elements. During the spring and summer, the nutrition team worked through rain and heat while operating around 50 meal sites by summer’s end. 

In preparation for the inevitable cold, the team used the weeklong break between summer feeding and the start of the new school year to designate a plan for feeding site operations in the fall and winter. 

By the start of the year, the nutrition team had set up 28 sites inside school buildings that were ready to feed kids on day one.

“We went building by building at our schools, and we figured out the best door where food distribution could continue to happen and would not be interrupted by weather,” says Assistant Director of Culinary and Wellness Services Omar Guevara-Soto. “Every school has a door that we have designated for food pickup, where our staff is inside and is close to the refrigeration area where we drop off the food.”

Constant communication with parents to help them get in, pick up the meals and get out without wandering into school buildings has been essential, and will continue to be important as snowstorms become more frequent, says Guevara-Soto: “Especially when there's a big snowstorm, when there is a really cold day, them knowing what to do to get in, get out and go is super helpful.”

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