Operations

What should K-12 operators be doing now to prepare for the fall?

Dr. Katie Wilson of the Urban School Food Alliance shares how the nonprofit is working to help its districts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photograph: Shutterstock

As school foodservice programs struggle to keep costs in check amid the coronavirus pandemic, organizations like The Urban School Food Alliance are stepping in to help mitigate the extra expenses. 

FoodService Director sat down with Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit that represents 12 major school districts across the U.S., to learn how school nutrition operators are meeting the challenge of serving meals while schools are closed and what she thinks they should pay attention to next. 

Q: Why did you set up the Student Emergency Access Fund?

We learned very quickly from the districts that we represent that [emergency feeding] is becoming an exponentially expensive way to feed kids in the community. We do a weekly membership call, and every week, we were hearing that the numbers of people coming to get food were going up very quickly in a very short period of time because people became unemployed so quickly. …

We're still on a per-meal reimbursement model, which makes no sense whatsoever for this kind of emergency feeding. We started talking about all the packaging for grab-and-go and what that was costing, and then a district said, “Oh, we just had to rent 18 refrigerated semi-trucks to go to the site and keep the food cold.” So all of these things started to become expensive.

Then, not only did students need food, but the adults did as well, but you can't get any reimbursement for adults. There is no mechanism for that. In all our districts, the staff stayed fully employed, which is a good thing, but they didn't have to come to work; and so many times, the district had to pay hazard pay of some kind to get people to come to work because everybody else was at home.

We started hearing, “Well, I'm going to lose $12 to $13 million. Oh, this now, I'm going to lose up to $19 million,” and somebody got up to $30 million. And we thought: Oh my goodness, this is going to ruin school nutrition programs. There's no way they're going to be able to start back in the fall at a decent level, so we stepped into action and we just decided that we would start an emergency food access fund and try to mitigate some of these costs.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges, and how are districts in the Alliance trying to solve for those?

I think the whole thing is a challenge: Every day is a challenge for every district that opens their doors. The biggest being that we can't literally just go into emergency feeding, where we would be giving bulk food like the food bank. When you have a natural disaster, FEMA might come in or the Red Cross might come in, and if your kitchen is safe and still operating, you would be in a completely different model to feed people. You wouldn't be identifying individual meals for individual kids.

Katie Wilson  Dr. Katie Wilson

We also found out very quickly—and districts all across this country found out very quickly—that not all kids can get to a site because not every school is open. You might have 300 schools, but you only have 50 sites open or something like that. In every single one of our districts, they got the school buses, loaded them with food and they took them out to where they knew kids were. School bus drivers know how to find kids because they pick them up every day. So, they started transporting food all around the city and going to homeless shelters, even taking food door to door to kids that they know don't have access to any kind of transportation.

Another one of the biggest challenges was finding the packaging. We're not used to buying this kind of packaging and shipping it all over the place. It's been difficult. Individually wrapped items were also coveted, of course, because they are very quick and easy to pack. Well, those became either very difficult to get or very expensive because all, across the country, people were looking for them.

Some of our districts have hired out the ability to take bulk products and repackage them into smaller bags. And then there’s this whole issue of having to identify what component goes for what meal. A number of our districts came up with the idea of putting a card together. So with a box of food for the week, there would be the menu and there’d be a card, both in English and Spanish, that would identify which food was for which meal on which day and what the portion sizes were, and then some heating directions are in there as well.

Q: What should operators be paying attention to as they look to the upcoming school year?

One of the things to really look at is the menu. You really have to become a bit more realistic about what that menu is going to look like [and] you have to also let manufacturers know what kinds of things are you going to be looking for and what are you interested in because it's going to be a new normal, that's for sure. If you are going to have kids in school every other day, for example, one group of students on Monday and Wednesday, and then another group Tuesday and Thursday, then that menu could repeat. You’re also going to have to be as cost effective as possible because everybody's going to start pretty much in the red. 

I think you also have to start thinking about what labor looks like. You don't need as much labor if you're only serving half the kids every day. That being said, if you have kids physically in school Monday and Wednesday, do you plan to send home food with them for Tuesday and Thursday and Friday? Some of that grab and go is still going to have to take place. Maybe that's where you use the rest of your labor: preparing those grab-and-go meals to take home.

So all of those pieces are going to fall into place as soon as districts decide how that school year is going to work. I think it's going to be a complicated year, and we're really encouraging everybody to start talking to their legislators about universal free meals for next year. We think that will solve a lot of headaches for schools, and it will help families drastically.

Dr. Wilson’s responses have been lightly edited and condensed. 

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