In the midst of an exceedingly tough year, Amanda Venezia, foodservice director for Londonderry School District in Londonderry, N.H., was looking to bring some joy to the cafeteria.
“In addition to COVID-19, at our high school location, we actually lost a senior that was in a terrible car accident, and we also had two staff members that we actually lost as well,” Venezia says. “This year has been a real struggle for us. It's been a very, very difficult year for us here at Londonderry, and so we wanted to do something just super fun and crazy.”
Venezia and the team decided to host a themed Disney day at the high school. Students enjoyed a special lunch complete with decorations and Dole whip, a favorite treat at Disney theme parks. The event was just one of many ways Venezia and her team got creative to make school meals exciting during the pandemic while serving students safely.
Finding new ways to serve meals
The Londonderry foodservice team has been operating several different feeding models this year.
Elementary students receive their meals in the classroom, while middle and high schoolers can eat in the cafeteria. The nutrition team is also providing curbside meals for the roughly 20% of the student body that is learning remotely.
“It's truly hybrid,” says Venezia. “Anything that you can think of, we're doing.”
The transition to meals in the classroom was the biggest challenge, Venezia says, since it was so different from traditional school foodservice.
“[The nutrition team] were taking orders from the kids and then would drop off the orders to them contactless so that there was no contact from our staff. Then teachers would distribute those meals,” says Venezia. “So, there was a lot of training that had to happen there, and there continues to be an incredible amount of daily communication with teachers.”
At the middle and high school level, one of the biggest changes was getting rid of the self-serve salad bar. Venezia and the team still wanted to allow students the ability to customize their salads and sandwiches, so they decided to invest in an online ordering system through Nutrislice.
Students are able to go online and customize their items for pre-order. Once their orders are received and prepared, the meals are placed in a set of lockers. Students then enter their student I.D. to open up the lockers and retrieve their food.
The new program has helped control costs and waste since the nutrition team now has complete control over portions, Venezia says, and the team is planning on continuing it this fall.
Preparing for the fall
Also continuing post-pandemic is First Taste TV—an online show created and hosted by Venezia and Marlon Gordon, CEO of NxtGenInnovators—that highlights different vendors and products in the K-12 space. While the first season was shot in a studio due the pandemic, this season, Venezia and Gordon got to check out products in-person on the road.
“We have some incredible new episodes out for First Taste TV [that] are going to be coming in July,” says Venezia. “And we're really excited because this gave us the opportunity with our vaccinated team to go on site to different locations, and we actually filmed in factories and on showroom floors and in test kitchens, so you'll get a little bit of a different feel.”
Looking ahead, Venezia is excited about having the entire student body return to the cafeteria and looks forward to nurturing new relationships.
“It's been an incredible opportunity for people to see what we're doing in the cafeteria [and has created] some great relationships that are going to last long after this year,” she says.