In a typical year, school cafeterias are bustling with activity from September to June. This year, the seats are empty and the room is silent.
It’s an absence that Barb Waara, student nutrition director at the McFarland School District, feels to her core. Waara began a career in the nutrition business 25 years ago, and has been with McFarland schools since 2016.
“[We] really miss seeing the students at school,” Waara said.
While the cafeterias may be empty, the kitchens are full. Despite a majority of students learning virtually from home, the nutrition department is still working to feed more than 400 students a day.
“We’re supplying free meals, breakfast and lunch, to all McFarland children ages 18 and under, and we feed about 400 students with our daily drive-up hot meal distribution,” Waara said. “We also pack cold lunches for both a.m. and p.m. students at Conrad Elvehjem Primary School, and deliver meals to 70 children who are unable to come to the high school or Waubesa for pick up.”
In September, Conrad Elvehjem Primary School (CEPS) was the first McFarland district school to open up for in-person learning, on a limited basis, after the onset of the pandemic shut the district down last March.
CEPS Principal Greg Nelson said the nutrition department has been a saving grace for the school as the students adjusted to a new learning model.
“The food service team has been working extremely hard since the pandemic began in March to make sure students get nutritious meals. When CEPS opened in September to in-person learning, that group began providing daily bagged meals to any family who signed up to bring home from school each day, including additional meals for non-school days and weekends,” Nelson said.
“I know the staff and families really appreciate the hard work of that team to change our traditional approach of serving lunches in our cafeteria,” he continued. “Our students are not only getting a great education from their teachers, but are also getting delicious meals from our food service team.”
The department also delivers meals to five daycare centers in the area. It’s their duty, Waara said, to take care of McFarland students, whether they’re in the cafeteria or sitting at their own kitchen table. In addition to meals during the school week, families can sign their students up to receive free meals on the weekends as well.
“We have incredibly dedicated staff, whose goal at work is to provide good-tasting nutritious meals to the children of our community,” she said.
Despite serving hundreds of meals each day, Waara said it’s still less than half of the students they would normally serve in a typical, pre-COVID, world.
“I believe it boils down to families not knowing this program is available to all children in McFarland,” said Waara. “Some people know and choose not to use it, but they may not know how much it benefits our program if they participate. All children qualify for free meals this year, and there’s no paperwork involved on their part.”
The nutrition department is both self and government funded, meaning the more families who sign up for free meal distribution, the more income the department has to sustain high quality meals and payroll obligations.
The federal government provides the nutrition department with $3.58 per lunch, and $1.89 per breakfast. The state government also contributes, with $0.05 per lunch and $0.08 per breakfast.
“The more meals we distribute, the better off our department will be financially as we receive more government money for each additional meal given to children,” Waara explained. “We are self-sufficient, so that means we have to make enough money to support all of our expenses: payroll and benefits, all food and milk, supplies purchases, etc. The money we bring in from breakfast, lunch and ala carte sales have always covered our expenses in the past, but it won’t this year.”
Waara and her colleagues in the nutrition department are encouraging all McFarland families to take advantage of the meal program while they still can.
More information and a meal sign-up sheet can be found on the nutrition department’s website.