Maria Norman's son is only in fourth grade, but his participation in remote learning this academic year regularly drew the family to South Side High School.
For an hour every Tuesday evening, the Normans could rely on Fort Wayne Community Schools nutrition services staff handing them a package containing five breakfast and five lunch meals.
“They are out there in the rain, in the dark, in the snow, cold,” said Norman, the FWCS board vice president.
The four Allen County school districts have been a reliable source of food for K-12 students since last March, when schools abruptly closed to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
Families quickly lined up at distribution sites when they opened in mid-March, receiving such packages as paper lunch bags filled with turkey sandwiches, sides and milk.
FWCS alone served 571,623 meals – breakfast and lunch – from March 17 to May 29, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
The early days of the school closure were challenging because rules constantly changed, making planning difficult, said Brant Brown, the food and nutrition services director for Southwest Allen County Schools.
Even so, Brown and his team distributed almost 49,000 meals from March 17 to the end of school in late May – about the same as 1,000 meals per day, he said. SACS had about 7,700 students last year.
East Allen County Schools – a slightly larger district with about 10,000 students last year – provided 462,690 take-home meals during the spring closure, said Dan Krleski, food service director.
He described it as a new challenge.
“We believe we had a great plan in place, but of course adjustments were made as we worked through some of the logistics,” Krleski said by email. “In the food service world, you learn to be flexible and take into consideration that just because you have a plan, (it) does not mean modifications to that plan (won't be needed), especially in such an unknown territory such as this.”
Scrambling for food
Reopening schools to in-person learning added another layer to school districts' food service operations in August. They not only planned for students eating at school but also the remote students.
FWCS, however, had an additional set of students to plan for: middle and high school students. They are operating on a blended schedule this year, meaning they split their week between in-person and remote learning. Those students get meals for their remote days, too.
“We did go from serving students one way to three different ways,” said Candice Hagar, nutrition services director.
FWCS – a district of almost 30,000 students – prepared about 15,000 remote meals per week in the beginning of the academic year, Hagar said. She noted that has dropped to about 7,000 to 8,000 meals per week since winter break.
It takes about two to three days to assemble the meal kits, which include a dry bag of shelf-stable items as well as items requiring refrigeration, Hagar said.
The five FWCS high schools serve as distribution sites, a change from last spring, when elementary schools served as pickup locations.
As a parent getting the meals, Norman noticed the tweaks the staff implemented to improve speed and convenience since they have an hour to get several hundred families through the line.
Processes have also been refined at Northwest Allen County Schools, whose staff have the remote meals “down to a science,” said Leeanne Koeneman, food services director.
NACS provides about 950 remote meals – five breakfasts and five lunches per student – each week, Koeneman said.
The biggest hurdle this year is getting food, she said.
“We couldn't get a pancake last week,” Koeneman said in an interview last month.
It's a problem other districts face – and similar to what some grocery store shoppers have experienced – as food manufacturers and the trucking industry are affected by illnesses and quarantines. This results in menu substitutions, which can lead to headaches for school systems.
If SACS planned to serve pancakes, for example, but couldn't get any, Brown said he might instead order chicken patties. So, he continued, Koeneman could encounter problems when trying to order chicken patties for NACS.
“Everybody's doing the same thing,” Brown said. “It's crazy for everybody.”
Meanwhile, schools must ensure meals comply with federal nutrition guidelines, Koeneman said. However, she said, manufacturers might prioritize other demands – like stocking grocery shelves with Super Bowl party snacks – over producing the whole grain products schools require.
Hagar is counting her blessings FWCS students continue to be fed. Sellouts can be particularly worrisome because she must suddenly find a substitute for the approximately 26,000 students the district feeds.
“I praise God daily that he keeps working it out for us,” Hagar said.
Although suppliers have created challenges, Brown said his biggest concern has been staffing as employees are affected by quarantines, including those involving their children.
Like other SACS departments, food services has a staffing substitute list, but it's difficult to call on a sub to fill in for someone quarantined for two weeks, Brown said.
FWCS is determined not to close schools because it can't feed students, Hagar said.
This meant finding solutions when quarantines at the district's central kitchen affected the entire production crews – first and second shift – for two weeks, Hagar said.
This processing center packages meals for all the elementary schools, which have in-person classes five days a week.
Employees from the middle and high schools – which have their own kitchens – filled in to help with the elementary school meals, Hagar said.
“Our production didn't stop,” she said. “Our students never noticed there was an issue.”
Stockman, the FWCS spokeswoman, praised the problem-solving.
“It was really pretty amazing they were able to pull that off,” Stockman said. “I don't think there was anyone over here that wasn't blown away.”
Connection to school
When closures began last spring, Norman appreciated the ability to walk to a nearby FWCS elementary school to get a lunch for her son, Elijah.
“It was a way to stay connected to school even though they weren't in school,” Norman said.
EACS tries to provide remote learners with meals similar to the breakfasts and lunches students in the buildings receive, Krleski said. Cold options include ham and cheese sandwiches, taco salad and yogurt with a muffin, he said, while meals requiring minimal preparation at home include macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, cheese quesadillas and mini corn dogs.
On average, Krleski said, the district provides 100 meals per week, although numbers have declined as weather has gotten colder and parents have returned to work. Quarantined students also are eligible for the meals.
Norman said she especially liked the fresh fruit and milk packed in the FWCS meals. Elijah – who has returned to in-person classes at Weisser Park Elementary School after months of remote learning – would get excited by little cheeseburgers he remembered eating at school.
Families have given FWCS nutrition services staff hot chocolate and homemade cards, Hagar said.
It is, she added, “really heartwarming how the community has been so appreciative of everything we've done.”