The new normal of the school lunch


Public school lunchrooms can evoke memories of food fights, socializing, trading your PB&J for cheese puffs. But those days, at least for a while, are on hold.

A trip through a Jeffco Public Schools elementary cafeteria line is a quiet and orderly affair nowadays — perhaps quieter and more orderly than in the history of hot lunch.

Since March, the effects of the pandemic have been felt in virtually every aspect of our lives, and the school cafeteria is no exception. The challenges of keeping students safe, but still well fed, has been challenging, according to Jeffco’s Executive Director of Food Nutrition Services, Beth Wallace. she says it is a challenge that her staff has been meeting head-on though.

Wallace says she has seen many things in a Food Service career spanning more than 25 years. From floods to unexpected school closures, she’s dealt with them all, but the indefinite nature of the current situation was a bit of a curve-ball in the beginning.

“We got notice on March 13 that we were shutting down, and by the 16th we were serving remotely, so we had a weekend to shift and adjust and put a plan together. Did it go smoothly? No. But we got (the food) out there and we continued to tweak,” Wallace said. “We started off thinking one way, and then as you see what’s happening you adjust, and we still adjust.”

A new plan

Wallace, who is also the President-elect of the National School Nutrition Association, has put a program in place in Jeffco that has lunchtime, even with new health safety procedures, running efficiently. And she gives a lot of the credit to a waiver from the Secretary of Agriculture that has allowed the district, and districts across the country, to offer free meals to all schoolchildren. Wallace said that the need has always been there, to feed hungry children from homes where food is not always guaranteed. But now, with families facing layoffs, furloughs and business closures, that need has grown.

The waiver, granted by the federal government on Oct. 9, will extend through June 30, 2021, and allows the schools to operate under the rules of the Summer Food Service Program, whereas traditionally they would operate under the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program during the school year. The differences in the programs are vast, but the biggest one is that usually only the Summer Food Service Program allows for the free meals to go to every student.

Pre-packaged nutrition

Because with the tricky nature of food handling in a global pandemic, the old rules simply don’t apply. Before COVID-19, children would go through the line in the cafeteria and select what they wanted: A fruit, a vegetable, an entreé and whatever drink they wanted, not to mention snacks like ice cream and chips. When they got to the cashier, they would enter their keypad number. But now, the Department of Health doesn’t want the kids doing all of that picking and grabbing and punching in numbers. Everything has to be pre-packaged.

“With the Summer Food Service Program, we just have to ensure that there’s a fruit and a vegetable in the bag. We’ll let them tell us which entree they want — they’ll have a choice, but the kitchen staff already has it in a bag,” Wallace said. “The employee asks what kind of milk the kids want, and they’ll put it in the bag for them. So the kids are really just taking the bag. It’s fewer touch-points, safer sanitation, and they can spread out six feet.”

Another change is that the elementary kids then take their lunch bags back to their classroom to eat.

Where the need is high

Josh Shapiro is the Principal at Foothills Elementary School in Lakewood. The suburban school is also a Title 1 school, a designation given to schools with a high percentage of students on the free or reduced lunch plans. In the case of Foothills, 76% of the students qualified for the lunch subsidy, and that’s before COVID-19.

Sapiro says it is clear to him how important the waiver has been for many of the kids at his school to get this help.

“We started with the breakfast program last year, and now with the free breakfast, we have upwards of 120 kids a day served at breakfast alone,” he said. The numbers grow exponentially when you look at the district as a whole.

“To put it in perspective, you’re hearing Josh talk about Foothills Elementary, but in Jefferson County, the entire district, we’ve got 150+ schools,” Wallace said.

The free lunch and breakfast program extends to at-home learners as well, allowing parents to pick up a full week of meals for their children during designated days and times each week. The parents are able to just knock on the door and the bags of meals are brought out to them, eliminating most of the touch-points with keypads and exchanges of cash that would make the situation less sanitary.

Foothills has only seven families that participate in the at-home version of the program, but Wallace said that some schools in the district have as many as 300. She thinks it is highly unlikely that the free meals for everyone will last beyond the current waiver, but says some of the other practices including the public’s preference for the pre-packaged options the district has put in place might stick around awhile.

Another thing that might stick around beyond the pandemic is the budget shortfall it caused. According to Wallace, one of the things the district food service program depends on heavily are a la carte sales, which have been largely diminished since March. She said Jeffco usually takes in around $5.5 million in annual revenue from a la carte sales. That’s about $32 thousand a day, which has shrunk to $1 thousand a day since COVID-19 struck. It is a significant loss of revenue that will be hard to recoup, and could reverberate through the district’s budget.


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