Foodservice Directors Chat About How They’re Helping Feed Students

Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA), through the No Kid Hungry Ohio campaign, provided $860,000 in grants to 36 Ohio school districts in Fall 2020 to help them expand food access to students regardless of their learning model.

We chatted with foodservice directors in select districts to find out how they are utilizing the funding to better serve their students during the pandemic.

Their responses have been edited for brevity.

THE CONVERSATION

Natalie Winkle of Boardman Local Schools testing out the new food sealer.
Name of School: Boardman Local Schools
Location: Boardman
Number of Students in School: 4,200
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 45% district-wide
Foodservice Director: Natalie Winkle, 11 years

How has the pandemic impacted the meal service in your schol?

For in-person days, students pick up pre-packaged meals at the cafeteria and consume the food at their designated area. Remote students pick up 14 pre-packaged meals – seven breakfasts and seven lunches – once a week.

How does the school plan to use the grant?

We purchased food containers and a sealing machine so we can pre-package the meals. At the start of the pandemic, our vendors were constantly running out of containers. By purchasing and stocking the packaging, we’ll be able to have adequate supplies to continue serving meals. These containers are also space-efficient, allowing us to bulk up our remote meal inventory during the week so we’ll be able to feed kids during the spring break. This grant is a godsend and will help us feed more kids, especially when they need it most during the school breaks.

Do you have a personal story you can share?

I have many stories that I could share, but the one that comes to mind the most is the way we handled our meal distribution at the start of the pandemic when the food supply chain was disrupted. It was a huge problem! I was under a great deal of stress because we were operating with minimal staff, figuring out how to get food, any food.

During the distribution days, I had several families come through the pickup line with tears in their eyes, saying how important the meals were to them because they couldn’t find food in the stores. I will never forget that feeling of helplessness that I saw on the parents’ faces. It brings me to tears thinking about them at that moment.

Unsure of when our food supplies would be replenished, we always found a solution. On average, we give out up to 9,000 meals a week – 4,500 breakfast and 4,500 lunches. The children were grateful to be fed. It makes me very proud of being a food service director!

Name of School: Bridgeport Exempted Village Schools Location: Bridgeport Ohio in Belmont County # of Students in School: 749 Free or reduced-price meal eligibility: 55% Foodservice Director: Donna Burkenski, 32 years of experience

Name of School: Bridgeport Exempted Village Schools
Location: Bridgeport,Belmont County 
# of Students in School: 749 
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 55% 
Foodservice Director: Donna Burkenski, 32 years

How is your school operating today as a result of the pandemic?

We decided to return to full instruction on January 19, 2021, and have not looked back. We all knew this was what was best for students.

How has the pandemic impacted the meal service in your school?

Since the pandemic, we transitioned to a Breakfast in the Classroom model for grades five to 12. While it does require more work for our cafeteria workers, overall, it has been a positive change for us. We are blessed to have dedicated cafeteria workers who stepped up during the transition, looking out for the best interests of the students.

Why is this grant critical for your school?

Many of our original items within the cafeteria were close to 15 years old and out-of-date. This grant allowed us to update specific items without impacting our cafeteria budget. With the updated equipment and supplies, we’ll be able to extend Breakfast in the Classroom to the following school year and we are considering expanding the program to additional grades.

Suzi Gerhardt of Circleville City Schools distributing meals to children.
Name of School: Circleville City Schools              
Location: Circleville, Pickaway County
# of Students in School: 2,100
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 69%
Director of Human Resources and Foodservice: Suzi Gerhardt

How is your school operating today?

We are currently operating in-person classes four days per week, with some students learning remotely. All students are remote learning on Fridays.

Why is this grant critical for your school?

The grant was a critical aspect for our school so we could continue providing remote meals to our students. We purchased two heat sealers with the grant that allow us to make some of our students’ favorite freshly prepared meals that they can eat at home. We wouldn’t be able to do this without our new heat sealers.

In your work, do you have a personal story you can share where your foodservice made a difference to a child?

“I have had multiple families reach out to thank me and my department for providing meals during this time. We had two young girls bring cookies to the food service staff to show their appreciation. I also received the following note from a family:

“Thank you for being a blessing to our family! You are truly an answer to our prayers. I had a stroke over two years ago. The complications from it resulted in me leaving a 26-year career – I absolutely loved – for early disability retirement. Unfortunately, my husband lost his job. We’re hanging onto our home by a thread. We know God will see us through. I truly believe the good Lord brings people like you into our lives to help us from one day to another. We are used to being the ones giving and serving – it’s been a little tough being the ones receiving. I thought you’d like to know our 5-year-old just said, ‘The school place has the best food! When the coronavirus is gone, can we go there to eat sometime?’ Thank you for being a blessing!”

Name of School: Northridge Local Schools
Location: Dayton
# of Students in School: 1,549
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 96%
Food Service Director: Judi Hunter, 10+ years

How has the pandemic impacted the meal service in your school?

It has evolved since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago. At first, we provided breakfast and lunch every week via bus routes with 20+ stops, and by the end of the school year, we switched to a weekly drive-through for families to pick up meals. In the summer, we partnered with the First Heavy Metal Kitchen, a local food pantry, to distribute U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families food boxes.

This school year, we changed plans for meal delivery multiple times because the date to open the campus continued to move out. We settled on weekly meal pickups, switching from five to seven days a week, while also adding additional bus stops for meal drop-offs. To better support families, we began serving all kids – ages one to 18 – and transitioned from bags to convenient boxes with carrying handles to streamline production, storage and distribution. In December, we began providing dinners to our students in partnership with Children’s Hunger Alliance.

Why is this grant critical for your school?

The grant provided us the funds to purchase carts, dollies and other equipment to accommodate the evolving meal service. Without the new equipment, it would have been logistically impossible to provide the significant number of meals that we served.

Do you have a personal story you can share where your foodservice made a difference to a child?

Out on the bus route for weekly meal pickup, I would knock on doors to be sure families knew the food bus was there and ready to serve kids. One day, I knocked on a door, and within a few seconds the upstairs window slid open, and a beautiful smiling face of a third-grade girl popped out yelling, “We’re coming. We’ll be right down!” Not only did she come down, but she knocked on a friend’s door to be sure they would not miss the food bus. I do not know who was more delighted, this young lady or the food bus team!

Name of School: River Valley School District
Location: Caledonia, Marion County
# of Students in School: 1,870
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 51%
Foodservice Director: Brent Herdman

How has the pandemic impacted the meal service in your school and how are students continuing to receive meals?

We have simplified our operating process while maintaining our tradition of serving students healthy, well-balanced meals. Because of our success and flexibility to rapidly change and adjust our operations, we have reached far more students within our community than I ever thought we could during a time like this.

With the No Kid Hungry grant, how do you plan to use it to continue expanding food access for your students?

As the restrictions are lifted, we will continue our push to get out of the confines of our school cafeteria walls, by serving meals in our hallway, our parks and playgrounds, and our communities. We are strategically purchasing equipment that will provide us the flexibility to be ready for whatever the future throws at us.

In your work, do you have a personal story you can share where your foodservice made a difference to a child?

We provided meals to be picked up for children right before the Christmas holiday break at both of the school districts that I serve. We had an unbelievable response in both communities, cars stopping traffic on the roads in front of our buildings, cars lined up for hours. I never thought that a food giveaway would reach so many people. Here is a note that one parent gave us as they went through the line. Those few words made it all worth it.

Name of School: Southern Local Schools
Location: Racine, Meigs County
# of Students in School: 733
Free or Reduced-Price Meal Eligibility: 77%
Foodservice Director: Scott Wolfe, 10+ years

How has the pandemic impacted the meal service?

Since 80 percent of our students are on campus daily, kids can get breakfast and lunch at school. For remote learners, we offer pick-up lunches on Mondays with five days’ worth of meals. This was made possible by a Children’s Hunger Alliance grant that allowed us to hire additional help to pack and serve lunches. We also offer weekend grab-and-go meals.

Why is this grant critical for your school?

Southern Local is unique in that the district is surrounded by water—the Ohio River—on nearly three full sides, isolating us and limiting resources to help our kids. Last summer, we had to team up with another district to feed kids twice a week because of the limited resources. With this grant, we will be able to feed more kids, and perhaps operating a program independently this summer. Simply put, this grant will be the difference between kids eating and going hungry.

In your work, do you have a personal story you can share where your foodservice made a difference to a child?

Although we have many humbling stories, one in particular sticks out. A grandmother raising six grandchildren from two of her children came to pick up meals for the week crying. She said, “I didn’t know what we were going to do for food and I prayed about it. It wasn’t long after I prayed Mrs. McNickle, Southern Elementary principal, called to tell us that meals would be available for all my grandkids. I am so thankful to all of you here at the school.”

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