San Diego County School Nutrition Programs See Increased Demand During COVID-19 Pandemic
School nutrition departments across San Diego County are working nonstop to provide nutritious meals to families that are adapting to the shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts are facing significant challenges to do this, with departments adapting to new realities daily to keep kids fed.
One reality is the increased demand for school meals during a time when in-person classes have been canceled. “Our participation is significantly higher than summer, by several thousand meals per day,” says Jill Whittenberg, Director of Child Nutrition for the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. That assessment is echoed by Tara McNamara, Marketing Coordinator of San Diego Unified School District’s Food and Nutrition Services. “We serve around 20,000 meals per day and have provided more than 400,000 meals since the COVID19 Crisis Feeding started.”
Districts are encouraged by the number of people accessing these high-quality, healthy meals, and encourage more families to do so. “We need as many families as possible to participate,” says Sally Spero, Director of Child Nutrition for Lakeside Union School District. “Sometimes people think they have to be prequalified, or that they would be taking food away from someone who needs it more. None of this is correct.” In fact, the more families access the food, the more districts are able to do to serve their communities.
Another change is in meals themselves. Some districts are able to maintain hot meal service with entrees prepared daily, while others are looking for meals that translate to a ‘grab-and-go’ format, allowing for easy preparation at home.
These changes showcase the resiliency and adaptability of the districts, as leaders work to overhaul the foods they are able to source. San Diego Unified’s McNamara says, “we have had to be flexible with our menus and make changes as necessary based on availability from vendors.” Says Whittenberg, “We’re all [school districts] working with our food distributors to access foods that are available. There are many items that can take 2-3 weeks to access, so we often have to work with what is available to meet the demand. We do it - but we have to be flexible.”
Districts are also looking at how they serve, how many days per week they can serve, and the number of school sites available to serve. For most, that means adjusting to drive-through service wherever possible to maintain healthy distances. “We are distributing meals curbside in either the parking lots or bus driveways at our participating school sites,” says San Diego Unified’s McNamara. “We decided on this serving style following best practices of other school districts as well as with waivers provided by the USDA.” These practices allow for a contactless delivery method that increases the safety for families.
Despite the challenges, school nutrition departments see an outpouring of support from their communities. Several PTA groups from the La Mesa-Spring Valley district made face masks for workers, and the staff at one location was cheered on by a family that made “thank you” posters for the team. Says the district’s Whittenberg, “That just reminded my staff why we do this. My people are the heroes - showing up every day to care for our children. Parents are grateful, kids are grateful, and we are grateful to be able to provide support to our community.”
The districts continue to promote their service as the shelter-in-place order remains. Says McNamara, “Maintaining proper nutrition is essential for students in these difficult times. We encourage sharing information about how and where children can access meals so we are reaching all in need.”
La Mesa-Spring Valley, responding to feedback from parents and families, has scaled back the number of days they serve, but serving multiple days’ worth of meals on each day. “We are serving Multi-Meal Packs two days a week,” says Whittenberg. “Those packs have breakfast and lunch for multiple days. We surveyed our families and many said that they didn’t want to have to go out every day, and they welcomed an opportunity to limit their outside exposure.”
The Farm to School Collective campaign brings together child nutrition service leads from districts across the county to promote healthy school meals. For more information on the campaign or to learn more about the vital role of school nutrition programs, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.