When the Dallas Independent School District moved to remote learning on March 16, Michael Rosenberger and his team created a comprehensive system for delivering meals to families during the pandemic. They started by centralizing their food storage. A team scoured the elementary schools for cold storage units and took on the massive task of moving more than a hundred refrigerators, freezers and milk storage boxes to almost 50 secondary schools that serve as pickup sites.
Rosenberger, the executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services for the district, says they were lucky to have both infrastructure (such as a central kitchen and those cold storage units) and experience (they had already been providing meals to students during school breaks), advantages that helped them pivot quickly from daily hot meal service to a highly organized weekly meal pickup service.
Each week, the Dallas team provides its students with about 325,000 meals. (At their busiest, they delivered more than 650,000 at once.) Since the start of the pandemic, they’ve provided seven million meals.
“It’s so cool to be part of something that’s doing this much good for so many people,” Rosenberger says. “You look at what COVID-19 has done in terms of job loss, displacements, stress, mental health and people worried about paying their bills—we’re really happy to be doing this program and making a positive impact for so many children.”
The district, which serves more than 150,000 students at 230 schools, provides curbside meal pickup every Thursday morning. Each household receives one bag of food for each student, containing a week’s worth of food. (Students must be present in the car or a guardian needs to provide documentation to receive food.) A runner—either a district staff member or a community volunteer—fetches the bags from coolers waiting under a service tent and places them in a back seat or an open trunk. They also serve some walk-up participants from the neighborhoods.
For households without transportation, Food and Nutrition Services takes meals to other drop sites through a partnership with the district Student Transportation Services department. On Thursdays, they load up school buses with meals for delivery to areas where it’s easier for people with unstable housing to pick them up.
To close access gaps even further, they also partner with the city of Dallas. DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) buses allocated for meal delivery take meals to a number of recreational centers across the city to serve even more areas.
Rosenberger is proud that the school district is paying all employees their base pay through the entire COVID-19 school year. Employees who continue to work on the meals program—about 60% of the nutrition services staff—receive additional pay.
“We’re financially helping our employees. And in return, our employees are really helping the community at large,” he says. “It’s been a beautiful win-win situation.”
Before the pandemic, Dallas ISD was focused on adding more and more scratch-made foods to the menu. But with that model on hold, their ordering patterns had to shift from bulk to individually wrapped foods.
“You can’t give each family a #10 can of green beans and say, “OK, here you go!’ We’ve worked with our vendors and suppliers to find food that is more suitable for serving so many meals to individual households at one time,” Rosenberger explains, noting that they still focus on providing as many fresh fruits and vegetables as they can.
A typical bag contains a gallon of milk plus seven breakfasts and seven lunches that meet all the standard meal requirements. Each meal contains an entrée and individual servings of fruits and vegetables such as a whole apple and cherry tomatoes or a fruit cup and carrots. Breakfast might be apple French toast or a waffle sausage sandwich. Lunch could be a beef and bean burrito, chicken tenders, pinto bean tamale or a grilled chicken slider. Rosenberger says meal planners try to include versions of the most popular entrées as often as possible.
In April, Time Magazine honored members of the Dallas ISD nutritional staff on one of its covers. Asked about it, Rosenberger talks about the deeper side of feeding students: “I’m proud of the entire team. They’re remarkable, selfless people. One of my mottoes is, ‘We don’t just feed the belly, we feed the heart,’ and they do that. They really live it.”
Cafeteria manager Yolanda Fisher echoed this idea in her Time profile: “Most people look at us as a cafeteria lady,” she said. “I look at it as a service.”