Since the beginning of the pandemic, St. Vrain Valley School District has served children ages 1 to 18 over a million meals.
With a staff of over 200, Shelly Allen, director of Nutrition & Warehouse Services at SVVSD, has led her team through many changes and adaptations to ensure Longmont’s children receive nutritious meals.
“The sort of aha moment (with) COVID was when all of these people realized their everyday role is important, they are all working together for the same mission. (Their work) makes a big difference,” Allen said.
According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, meals from schools and childcare centers “fulfill up to two thirds of children’s daily nutritional needs.” School closures as a result of the pandemic have brought upon an unprecedented undernutrition and food insecurity concerns for children who rely on free or reduced-price meals at school.
In response to this crisis, the federal government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, issued a series of waivers back in March to help mitigate the impact of school closures on child nutrition.
According to Allen, the USDA National School Lunch Program has allowed the district to feed all children ages 1-18 at no charge in the past few months and will continue through the spring of 2021. “No one pays for any meal,’ she said.
From the start of the pandemic, the nutrition team at SVVSD has prepared over a million meals, including 550,000 just in the past three months , Allen said.
Prior to COVID, Nutrition Services worked through the year to meet the nutritional needs of children. “We run our program year round so we can provide meals in the summer and during the school year. It’s a very fast paced job out of the kitchen,” she said, adding before COVID the staff produced about 25,000 meals a day, a number that has been cut in half since the start of the pandemic.
“We have a captured audience when all kids are in school. When they were all coming to school every day, they would eat in the cafeteria. When we went to hybrid, there were half as many children in the school,” Allen said, adding the online program brought even less students and staff in the school buildings.
The changes to meal delivery have also required a change in pace and logistics.
According to Allen, SVVSD nutrition services operations has gone from a 53-school operation to a 13-site curbside pick up model, which has called for much staff reorganization. “Some staff have volunteered to help with community meals and some in the custodial program,” she said.
These changes have also resulted in unexpected silver linings.“It was a great opportunity for us as employees to kind of change our scope of how much we can support the district,” Allen said.
Annette Riegle, kitchen manager at Timberline PK-8, has overseen the production of about 800 meals a day at her school, a number that rose over 1,000 meals during the spring for curbside pick up.
“We had to change our thought process,” she said. “We are now serving inside and curbside so instead of serving in line we are packaging things up for families to take home. It’s more challenging.”
Riegle recognizes that it has been a challenging year for families and her work helps bring some relief. “This whole process with COVID has been a struggle for parents and I'm glad we are able at least provide two meals for them,” she said. “The good part is that we are feeding kids… We are all very happy to do it, whatever it takes.”
According to Allen, during the times of COVID, SVVSD kitchens have helped bring food and groceries to more than just the students.
“With kids in the hybrid program, we help support a lot of other places in the community,” Allen said, adding the program has supported River Valley and Eagle Crest communities as well as children at the YMCA and in a couple of local daycare centers.
“The program really touches not just the schools but a lot of community places within the school district,” said Allen. “It's a pretty fulfilling job.”
Earlier this week, SVVSD announced that students will return to online learning after Thanksgiving due to the rising cases of COVID-19. For the nutrition service team, this means going back to an almost full curbside model starting Nov. 30.
“We have a pretty strong crew and they’ll be able to cover all the sites and the extra things we’ll be doing,” she said, adding some charter schools will continue to serve in person. “We will be able to accommodate all staffing needs at this point… we’ll be able to do the job and do it well.”
Allen is optimistic the staff will continue to shine amidst a whole new round of changes.
“Prior to (COVID) parents had a real respect for our jobs, but I don't know if parents really understood the quality of food we are serving our students, how much fresh fruit and vegetables we serve everyday,” she said. “The parents and the public are really seeing what we are doing, it makes a difference on how (the staff) see their job, to see they are valued in their jobs.”