Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'An absolutely huge shift': School districts transform how they feed kids during pandemic

Nutrition services workers in the Puyallup School District prepare boxes of meals for kids to eat while schools are closed due to the pandemic.
Courtesy of the Puyallup School District
Nutrition services workers in the Puyallup School District prepare boxes of meals for kids to eat while schools are closed due to the pandemic.

It’s been a whirlwind month for school district food service workers and managers.

They’ve scrambled to shift away from cooking food from scratch and serving hot meals in person to handing out grab-and-go items to families, all while trying to minimize contact and keep people safe.

With more than half a million children in the state who depend on free or reduced-price meals, it’s a critical service that Gov. Jay Inslee has said must continue even with schools shuttered due to the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s even more important now, with so many families in crisis due to mass layoffs.

“That was an absolutely huge shift to take all your plans and throw them out the window and still be able to serve kids,” said Leanne Eko, director of child nutrition services for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

One of the challenges districts have faced is finding enough individually packaged items, Eko said. Districts also are facing higher costs because they no longer have students paying full price for meals, and in some cases they’re paying hazard pay to workers who are handling meal distribution, she said.

Some districts “are definitely concerned that they’re operating in the red significantly,” Eko said.

There also is concern that not all children who normally get fed at school are receiving meals. Eko said surveys of school districts show that districts statewide are serving about one-third of the meals that they normally serve when school is in session.

Food service managers also are trying to adapt how they serve meals to limit in-person contact, to keep staff and families safe. Some districts are now handing out multiple meals at once, including the Highline, Kent and Puyallup school districts.

But that’s a big adjustment. In the Kent district, where more than half of students qualify for free or discounted meals, people commented on Facebook that sites ran out of food Monday. That was the one day the district was handing out food for the week.

In an email, Kent School District spokeswoman Melissa Laramie said the district had been handing out about 2,700 meals per day since the closure began. Under the new model of distributing boxes of five breakfasts and five lunches once a week, the district handed out 3,685 boxes this past Monday, the equivalent of 36,850 meals served.

“Like in other communities in our region, state and nation, the need for support is great and continues to grow,” Laramie wrote. “Our staff are rising to the challenge. Next week we will get a chance to do it again and we will prepare more meals for our children in the KSD community.”

In the beginning of the school closure, the Puyallup School District distributed breakfast and lunch daily. But Assistant Superintendent Corine Pennington said they shifted last week to handing out a box of five breakfasts and five lunches once a week. That's made it possible to hand out frozen items that can be heated at home.

“It’s really a better product for kids, too, in that they’re actually getting a hot chicken sandwich, instead of every day, it was a cold turkey sandwich or a cold ham sandwich,” she said. “That’s what we were doing – we were alternating every other day.”

But gauging how many meals to prepare has been tricky. The first full week they served more than 17,000 meals, Pennington said. When they shifted to distributing a box of five breakfasts and five lunches, they anticipated greater demand and prepared 35,600 meals, but they still ran out after 40 minutes, she said.

This week, the Puyallup district prepared 70,000 meals and wound up serving 48,840, which she said was fine because they can keep the shelf-stable items for next week and put the frozen items back in the freezer.

The Highline School District has shifted to serving meals at 10 locations twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The district is handing out two days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches on Mondays and three days’ worth on Wednesdays.

Lisa Johnson, nutrition services director for the Highline district, said she’s made a number of changes, including which items are included in meals.

“We’re trying to get pre-packaged apple slices and things like that, so we’re not handling a lot of food,” she said. “There’s so much information we don’t know about this virus, we’re just trying to be as cautious as possible and be safe throughout the whole process.”

Johnson said she hasn’t experienced big issues in the supply chain, but said it’s sometimes difficult to find the sizes of yogurts she’s seeking and with so many districts trying to get the same items, such as sunflower butter, she’s had to sometimes substitute peanut butter.

Education Coronavirus Coverage
In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.