When schools switched to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts like in Marshall, Waterloo, Cambridge and Deerfield, along with schools nationwide, had to reimagine food service operations to ensure students were getting fed.
This, according to Cambridge food service director, Janice Murray, changed everything for school food service programs.
“We were really running two different operations, because we had our hot program here, but then we had another section of my employees who were packaging up all those meals cold to be delivered to the families,” Murray said. “It was a lot more paperwork, a lot more organization, because we had to come up with the routes for delivery vans to take the food out. It was a lot trickier staffing, because we didn’t have any more staff, so we were spread pretty thin. It just changed the whole dynamic of everything for our department.”
Through a waiver granted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), school districts were able to opt into a program called Seamless Summer Option (SSO), something traditionally only available to schools in the summer months.
In response to COVID-19, the program typically offered only in summer became a year-round program districts could take advantage of, offering funding and flexibility in district meal programs.
Not only did the program allow schools to change when, where and how students get their meals, it also allowed all students to get their meals for free, no questions asked.
While students eventually found themselves back in the classroom, schools were still adapting to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This resulted in SSO being extended multiple times, but it came to an end with this school year.
But, pandemic ramifications continue to affect schools ranging from staffing shortages, and supply chain challenges.
“We’re still dealing with staff being out with COVID or COVID complications,” Murray said, pointing out that some have been sick multiple times. “So, we still are not back to normal.”
Nutrition directors for Cambridge and Deerfield spend more time these days working on their orders, as products they usually get are sometimes not available from their vendors. Changing menus for schools, however, isn’t as simple as swapping one item for another, as there are strict requirements for what districts have to provide for students.
With SSO, districts were able to use waivers if they were unable to get a certain required nutritional item, but without those waivers, and continued supply chain disruptions, Cambridge and Deerfield are not sure what to expect.
Staff in both districts, however, said they have benefited from smaller student populations. While larger districts may be left scrambling to fulfill orders when a certain product isn’t available, the smaller districts are able to adapt quicker.
“I have definitely heard from peers of having supply chain issues, especially in larger districts, just because of the sheer volume of things that they go through where we, as a small district, I receive five cases or something to feed about 600 kids every day and they receive two pallets,” Deerfield Nutrition Services Manager, Adam Dunnington said. “Sometimes stuff wasn’t available for the larger districts, where we’re pretty fortunate to be able to have that flexibility with substitutes.”
All of these changes have had significant financial impacts, said Doreen Treuden, business manager for Deerfield Community School District. This year, SSO reimbursed districts at a higher rate to help mitigate the higher costs of supplying student meals during the pandemic. This was not the case initially.
For DCSD, this resulted in a dramatic drop in the food service fund balance, leaving Treuden nervous for the 2020-21 school year’s possible impact.
“I was nervous about the fund balance again,” Treuden said. “At that point, I was expecting the fund balance to completely be depleted. If we were going to continue with a whole year of seamless summer, it was not enough reimbursement to cover our extended expenditures to carry out that program.”
The fund balance did continue to drop, but didn’t go negative, as Treuden feared. She is hopeful that with the increased reimbursement rates, the fund balance will continue to bounce back.
Without free meals, families also face financial uncertainties, and may face challenges while re-adjusting to paying for school meals, something that worries Murray.
Students, depending on their family’s financial situation, may qualify for free and reduced meals, but the programs require strict qualifications, “to the dollar,” Treuden said.
Seamless Summer helped ease the stigma that can be found in lunchrooms across the country for families that may not quite meet the income threshold for meal assistance in schools, nutrition directors said.
While several of the local school districts offer programs to help families who may not qualify, and refuse to penalize students with negative account balances, this is not the case in every school across the country, Murray said.
“Nationwide, what happens is kids will go through the lunch line, you know, and they’re hungry at that time and they get to the end of the line, and they’ll pull up their name, and they’ll have a negative account,” Murray said. “So, they take the tray away, throw the food away, and the child gets nothing to eat, and that’s a common practice throughout the US. When we went to universal free meals, it took that stigma away, everybody got fed and that’s the way it should be, in my opinion.”