With area schools starting back up soon and most of them with full in-person schedules, it’s back to consuming meals in cafeterias or classrooms. The pandemic has caused a lot of changes for school food service employees this past year in the way meals are prepared and distributed.
Last school year the Duneland School Corporation initially saw a drop in meal numbers, but that increased once the USDA implemented a waiver for free meals for all students, said Bridget Martinson, public relations director.
“At the time operations had to be adjusted to accommodate social distancing and to minimize handling so we used disposable packaging and made some changes to the menu offerings. Staffing also became a challenge as employees were personally affected by the pandemic,” she said.
This year all Duneland students will be eating in the cafeteria again. Meal service will return to normal operations after using disposable packing last school year. Martinson said that there may be a need for some pre-packaged items due to staffing matters.
At the School City of Hammond, breakfast will be served in classrooms with lunch in the cafeterias. “We have gotten very good at making delicious grab & go meals that are appropriate for the classrooms — nothing sticky like syrup or items that are too messy,” said Director of Food and Nutrition Services Christine Clarahan. The elementary schools will be using tables in the cafeteria that all face the same direction.
Clarahan said it's doing more individually wrapped items, and the district has new heat sealing machines to accommodate that. “The cost is much higher to us than when we could have had kids using lunch trays that we add bulk items to. However for the time being we are doing everything that is necessary, regardless of cost, to ensure everyone feels safe eating our meals.”
Both school corporations also have increased cleaning measures. Hammond is using a new table cleaning system that reaches more surface area and custodians use mist backpacks to sanitize eating spaces.
It’s been a busy year for school food service departments. Even when kids weren’t in buildings, lunches were being prepared for pickup. Lynn Strle, assistant director of food and nutrition services at School City of Hammond, said that families were grateful for those meals — with favorites such as spaghetti, sliced turkey, oven fried chicken, chicken fried steak, the super yum green salad and chicken nuggets.
“We have also been offering half gallons of milk at our curbside sites. We are serving multiple meals that include a lot of eight-ounce cartons of milk for breakfast and lunch, especially for those with larger families,” said Strle. “The families were excited to receive the half gallons of milk for easier storage.”
As the pandemic continues with new strains of the virus, concerns remain high about safety as the new school year begins. That means that food service personnel have another challenging year ahead. While the USDA has provided a waiver for all students to receive free meals for the 2021-2022 school year, supply problems are expected to make the jobs more difficult. “The pandemic has also created many challenges in the food supply chain,” said Martinson. “On a typical order day, it is not unusual to find that many of the items ordered are out of stock, resulting in having to find appropriate substitutes that still meet the USDA guidelines.”
“We are one of the few, if only, departments that stayed in-person in the buildings throughout the entire pandemic,” said Clarahan. "We worked extra hours and had multiple interactions with the public every week when we provided our curbside 'grab-and-go' meal service in all weather conditions."
Despite how tired the staff is from its battle of the last 18 months, Clarahan continued: “But at the end of the day the thank yous and the smiles from the children as they see their favorite lunch ladies and men remind you that the hard work is worth the exhaustion because we are meeting the most basic needs of our community.”