What a difference a year makes.
Last fall, in the weeks leading up to school reopenings, Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s 450-strong nutrition team was a hub of activity: large group in-service training, a pep rally for the upcoming school year and the normal preparations to serve the district’s 37,000 students breakfast and lunch across 84 schools.
The summer of 2020 brings a much more subdued tone to reopenings. Video has replaced in-person gatherings, kitchen crews are split up to allow social distancing and professional development isn’t in a classroom or auditorium, but on a laptop or tablet.
The fall of 2020 is bringing its own set of challenges. For the first nine weeks of school, which kicked off August 24, COVID-19 has dictated that all learning be remote, which has its own challenges. But because those students also rely heavily on schools for their nutritional needs, it’s upended typical planning and execution of school meals.
“Basically, our entire business model had to be changed,” says Christopher Burkhardt, school nutrition executive director for the district.
Instead of daily onsite breakfast and lunch, each of the 84 school facilities will now offer grab-and-go meals. Families can visit any one of the sites, regardless of where their children attend school.
Elementary (K-8) schools will offer packaged lunch and breakfast bundles four days a week, with Wednesday reserved for deep cleaning. Students will receive two days’ worth of meals on Tuesdays. Temporary remote serving lines have been set up near the front door to cut down on touchpoints inside the buildings.
At the high schools, students can collect a week’s worth of meals at one time, on Tuesdays: five lunches and five breakfasts. That option was made available to accommodate families with challenging schedules.
Students can opt for either model; in other words, high school students can pick up meals four days a week at a K-8 location, while younger students can visit a high school once a week and receive all 10 meals at once.
“The hardest part about what we’re doing is that we don’t know who we’re going to be feeding and how many folks are coming to any given site,” Burkhardt says. “They can go to any school that’s close to their home, which might not be the school they attend.” The nutrition staff has been working out a way to get parents to commit to a specific site for planning purposes.
The district had to convert almost overnight from an onsite to a to-go model last March, when the schools abruptly adopted remote learning in response to statewide shelter-in-place orders. “We had 48 hours to change our entire mode of service,” Burkhardt says.
With in-person classes canceled, 22 schools across the city remained open to distribute children’s meals during the shutdown and through the summer. School buses provided shuttle service as needed. The schools also partnered with the city’s food bank and USDA to distribute food boxes and weekend backpacks for families in need.
The menu had to be revised quickly to reflect the realities of brown bagging. In March, Burkhardt says, the staff made do with meals that were all ready to ship from the central kitchen facility; since then, the focus has been on cold and frozen items and easily reheated, transportable meals like wraps and burritos. To eliminate potential contamination, cooking is no longer done in the school kitchens—instead, they have been converted into meal assembly sites.
“Menu monotony is definitely an issue,” he says. “We saw that over the summer, when we served a lot of prewrapped sandwiches. It’s very difficult to meet all the regulations to serve red, orange and dark green vegetables and legumes in a way that’s grab and go or heat and serve.”
Another challenge is finding suppliers to can provide products that meet current needs. “We have been asking food manufacturers, ‘What do you have?’ and they respond, ‘What do you want?’” Burkhardt observes.
Budgeting has been difficult, with USDA reimbursements plunging when the schools closed in the spring. “Our revenue was cut by two-thirds, but our payroll and many of our other costs stayed the same,” Burkhardt says. He says the CARES Act has offset some of the losses.
Looking beyond the first nine weeks, the Cleveland schools’ nutrition department is planning for a hybrid model, with students on campus for part of the day. Meals will be packed in three-compartment clamshell containers, and with grab-and-go breakfast available as students enter the buildings and lunch distributed and taken back to classrooms, auditoriums, media centers or other remote locations to maintain social distancing.