School cafeterias are providing meals in socially distanced lunchrooms, in to-go boxes for classrooms and even through curbside pickup as they try to keep students fed safely during evolving conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Oak Park Elementary Child Nutrition Program manager Trinna Carter said the pandemic has required staff to be problem-solvers.
“We have to be ready for whatever comes our way, whether it’s not receiving something that you order or having more students return to face-to-face learning,” Carter said. “That’s where we work as a team and do what we need to do to get the job done.”
Carter said her elementary students eat in their classrooms, rather than in the cafeteria.
“We prepare the meals in carry-out trays and the teacher or teacher’s aide comes and picks the meals up,” Carter said.
Austin High CNP manager Gail Lett said lunches are pre-packaged so when students enter the lunchroom, they simply grab their lunch container and water cup and go.
“Overall, my team has adapted well and I feel it is more efficient and cleaner since the student only touches their individual boxed lunch. Also, their water is in cups ready with lids so they do not have to touch the water dispenser,” Lett said.
Students are permitted to eat in the lunchroom, but monitors ensure that they remain socially distanced. Some students choose to eat in classrooms, Lett said.
Morgan County Schools’ CNP director Julie Bone said her staff is working “harder this year than ever before,” to ensure students receive adequate nutrition while also minimizing the risk of COVID-19 spreading through meal distribution and school cafeterias.
“Some schools are packaging meals in to-go boxes and the students eat in their classrooms, while others serve meals in much the same manner as we have in the past, but students come through the line 6 feet apart and they sit social-distanced in the cafeteria, 6 feet apart and all facing the same direction,” Bone said. “Students are not able to fix their plates as they have in the past.”
Bone said staff wear face masks and gloves both when serving students and while preparing meals.
“Our cafeterias are sanitized multiple times daily and they are sprayed down at least once a week with a food grade product that has also been used at many local hospitals to help to kill any virus (or) bacteria remaining on surfaces,” Bone said.
In order to permit students to eat in the cafeteria, Bone said many schools have created staggered lunch schedules to minimize the number of students eating lunch at the same time. For schools doing lunches in classrooms, the teachers have taken on the additional responsibility of helping supervise mealtime.
“Our classroom teachers have been tremendous to help us manage this shift in feeding our students,” Bone said.
Since some students are learning remotely, Bone said there are fewer meals served this year than there were last year in Morgan County Schools. However, she said the number of meals served increased after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in late August that kids would receive two free meals per day through the end of the year.
“We do allow virtual students to pick up breakfast and lunch from school through a curbside meal distribution method. They pick up both meals each day at a school-designated time,” Bone said.
Bone said lunchtime during the pandemic consists of a lot of moving parts, as employees serve students in the cafeterias while simultaneously preparing and transporting food for curbside pickup.
“I am proud to say, though, that Morgan County doesn’t have a cafeteria that has not met the challenge and succeeded under these very trying times,” Bone said.
Decatur City Schools CNP director Julia Senn said virtual students can pick up curbside meals at Oak Park, Frances Nungester and Woodmeade elementary schools daily.
Meeting student needs
Carter said the pandemic has highlighted the importance of feeding children at school.
“Most people look at child nutrition workers as just a lunchroom lady, but we are so much more than that. We have worked hard to make sure the students have had nutritious meals since the pandemic started in March and will continue to do so,” Carter said. “If the school was to go totally virtual today, we would be here daily providing curbside meals for our students.”
Bone said CNP staff are part of a larger network of school employees and services that students rely on for support.
“There are students in every (school), from every walk of life, that look to our school staff for many needs they may not receive at home,” she said. “Our ladies not only provide food for our students, they also provide a smiling face to look for each morning.
"It has always amazed me how much our ladies know about each and every one of their students. They can call each one by name, wish them happy birthday, notice their new shoes or that they lost a new tooth, and even encourage our athletes and arts students by attending their sporting events, concerns (and) theatrical productions.”