Operations

How school nutrition programs aim to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever

In the age of COVID-19, K-12 operators are forming community ties and reanalyzing their roles in the greater food system.
Pacific Grove Unified School District
Photograph courtesy of Pacific Grove Unified School District

When Pacific Grove Unified School District in Seaside, Calif., announced at a board meeting that its schools would be closing due to COVID-19, School Nutrition Director Stephanie Lip was overwhelmed by community members’ eagerness to help.

“They all came up to me [after the meeting]: random people from churches, staff members that I never even knew,” she says. “They were just ready to kind of mobilize and do whatever we needed to make sure that our kids, especially the ones that depended on our program, continued to get fed.”

As COVID-19 still alters meal service, K-12 operators like Lip and her team are making the most of the situation and using this time to form new relationships while reaffirming the importance of school foodservice programs. 

Creating lasting partnerships

One of Pacific Grove USD’s newfound connections is a local bakery that started promoting the district’s meal program in conjunction with its efforts to provide free breakfast to students who stopped by the bakery in the mornings. The business then donated $400 to the nutrition department, which it raised through its tip jar. 

“[The owner] was just an ally in putting the word out there for us,” Lip says.

The foodservice team has also discussed the possibility of sourcing National School Lunch Program-compliant breads from the bakery in the future. 

In addition, a handful of teachers put Lip in touch with their church, which was running its own food distribution program. That connection spurred a new partnership through which the nutrition team donates leftovers to the church to be redistributed to struggling community members. 

“They're kind of like that second avenue to get food out there,” Lip says.

Maximizing momentum 

As the pandemic highlights the importance of school nutrition programs, Lip would like to build on that momentum going forward. 

“I've always felt that we're essential,” she says. “So I think, if anything, it's kind of made me want to highlight our department and our services more than ever—because, a lot of times, we were just looked at as this added service in the education world rather than an actual essential service.”

Lip hopes that in the aftermath of the pandemic, community stakeholders such as parents and principals continue to recognize the benefits that school foodservice has on students’ health and well-being.

“Hopefully, this conversation can kind of shift to how can we maximize our impact of foodservice to better serve all of our students to support their entire educational experience and not just focus on that academic side,” she says. 

A time for reflection 

The pandemic has also been a catalyst for operators to dive deeper into their roles and take a look at how they can help solve larger problems. 

At East End Community School in Portland, Maine, Cafeteria Manager Ailish Dennigan and area residents have set up an online program called Cafeteria Classroom, which aims to look critically at some of the policies that impact school foodservice and also provide food education to users. 

Dennigan credits the program with allowing her to take a broader view of school foodservice, a perspective she says she previously considered while at FoodCorps, a school food-focused nonprofit where she and Lip both spent time as service members. 

“Much of my reflection and observation on my role in community relationships harks back to a lens I started to examine more closely during my FoodCorps service, and that is: Who sets the table? Who is invited to the table? Which tables am I sitting at, and which ones am I not invited to? Or not needed at? And how can I best support other tables without stealing a chair?,” Dennigan says. “It helps me to look beyond whichever role I am in to see the system as a whole.”

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