When a cafeteria becomes a disaster shelter

When Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s foodservice director, Cody Williams, learned that the district’s high school in Sonoma, Calif., was being turned into a shelter for wildfire evacuees last fall, he immediately reached for the essentials. “The first thing I grabbed was coffee pots, knowing that we were going to be in this for quite some time,” he says. 

Williams spent a week at the school-turned-shelter, working 12- to 14-hour days and serving 300 to 400 meals to evacuees and volunteers daily. Like Williams, other FSDs around the country are opening their cafeterias during extreme conditions, serving meals to those affected by natural disasters.

Keeping it moving

At Sonoma Valley High School, shelter volunteers and evacuees relied on donations to sustain meal service while the shelter was open. An outpouring of generosity from the community made it so Williams was never concerned about a shortage of food.

“It was just a matter of keeping it organized and flowing throughout the week,” he says.

While there were enough donations to prevent Williams from serving meals prepared in the school’s kitchen, he says he did end up providing the first meal of the day in-house after diners asked for more protein at breakfast.

Williams also prepared some meals as backup if any donations fell through. Because everything went as planned, the meals were used as snacks instead.

Williams didn’t plan meals more than a day in advance. That way, he wasn’t too reliant on donors or on the hook for a bunch of food if the shelter suddenly closed.

Williams also asked that meals be delivered an hour before mealtime to keep from sitting on too much food at once.

Safety first

When Williams wasn’t arranging donations or cooking, he spent his time making sure evacuees were eating in a clean environment.
“Because we were doing foodservice in areas where people were also sleeping, we made sure that things, like the floors, were really clean,” he says.

The school also received daily health inspections for food contamination or illnesses.

Plan ahead

Hurricanes have become commonplace for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, to the point that the district plans for hurricane season in advance.

By the start of the season, the district and county have decided which schools will be used as shelters and have assigned three cafeteria managers to each.

Because hurricanes can be tracked, staff are usually able to plan ahead with vendors and prepare meals in-house, says Administrative Director of Food and Nutrtion Penny Parham.

Parham says a big part of running operations smoothly during a hurricane is taking the time to collect and store contact information.

“When you start the school year, get every single phone number of everyone that you may ever need to talk to, including vendors,” she says.

Those numbers, Parham says, have been key in keeping staff in the loop as well as staying in touch with the community at large. 



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