Operations

The state of K-12 foodservice: Building community

School operators are seeking to grow participation and engagement in this strange new world.
Illustration: FSD staff

When asked about the biggest challenges they’re facing due to the pandemic, low participation topped K-12 operators’ list. In fact, 77% of FSD survey respondents say they’re struggling with lower meal counts this year. Email blasts and social media posts are popular ways for operators across the country to advertise their meal service, but some are digging deep for fresh ideas.

Los Angeles Unified School District is boosting participation by offering weekend meals, opening more meal sites and using robocalls to keep parents apprised of weekly menus, says Manish Singh, director of food services. School District of Omro in Omro, Wis., aims to market its program through messages in the local paper and signs at a nearby food pantry, says Food Service Director Rose Ann Boushele, adding that “local churches are spreading the word” as well.

And Adams 14 School District is looking to grow participation by “adding little treats to our meal packs and partnering with food banks to offer additional food security to our families,” says Kasja Larson, director of nutrition services at the Commerce City, Colo., district.

Community collaborations

It takes a village to keep students fed during normal times and even more so during a pandemic. Nearly half (44%) of respondents say they’ve worked with community partners during this challenging time.

At South Orange Maplewood in Maplewood, N.J., an area bakery provides breads, cookies and pastries for distribution, while a local grocery store contributed grocery bags to help with meal deliveries at Willard Public Schools in Willard, Mo., and the fire department has assisted with curbside meals at Walton County School District in DeFuniak Springs, Fla.

Arlington Heights School District in Arlington Heights, Ill., received a helping hand from two community partners: “Our local hospital provided funding for a few weeks of extra vegetables in our meal bags, and the local library provided fun items for the bag,” says Food Service Director Coletta Hines Newell.

Engaging students at home

Amid remote learning, some districts are trying to engage students at home through activities, recipes and more. At Northern Lehigh School District in Saltington, Pa., staff members put motivational sayings in grab-and-go bags so that students can read an inspiring message each time they receive a meal, says Food Service Director Sue Bahnick.

Others are teaming up to provide fun educational activities for students, such as seed kits and activity books. “Our community partners are providing garden activities and other at-home engagements related to our school gardens and nutrition,” says Penny Parham, food service director for Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

See the full results of FSD's second annual survey on the state of K-12 foodservice.

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