Throughout the school shutdown, Charlottesville City Schools delivered meals to students on school buses. Even though schools are open, the staff is still preparing meals for delivery—to classrooms.
In all seven elementary schools in the Virginia school district, students eat lunch at their desks instead of in school cafeterias. Carlton Jones, administrator of nutrition services, says lunchrooms are too small to comply with social distancing requirements.
The nutrition staff packs lunches by classroom, portioning hot foods into covered, three-compartment metal trays purchased specifically for classroom meal delivery. They stack the trays in a separate bin for each classroom along with second bag for cold items. At an appointed time, each teacher picks up the lunches.
Each morning, elementary students choose an entrée: meat-based, vegetarian or a daily chef salad. Teachers report numbers by 9:00 a.m. If a student is late, teachers can alert the kitchen.
At the middle school and high school, students still go through the lunch line but meals are pre-portioned into the covered trays and stored in warmers. Each lunch comes with a pre-packed bag with condiments, a spork and fruit. The goal, Jones says, is to serve students as quickly as possible with “no bunching, no congregating.”
To give students at the middle and high schools space to spread out, they’ve expanded the number of lunch periods and opened up outdoor seating.
Across the district, they offer an oatmeal parfait breakfast every morning and a simple afternoon snack. Teachers supply the kitchen with numbers for both.
As for remote learners, Jones says they don’t have many; at least 95% of their students are back in school. No remote learners have requested meal service yet.
If they wish, families can order single lunches or a week’s worth of meals online and set up a time to pick up the order. The district is also ready with a system to deliver to remote learners at a higher volume, if needed.
Teachers and administrators, especially in the elementary schools, want to continue the model, even after the pandemic.
“It increases their instruction time,” Jones explains, “because they don't have to take the kids to the cafeteria and line them up. It’s a lot better for them.”
It’s also better for nutrition staff members, who now finish lunch service in the elementary schools up to an hour earlier than they used to. They use the extra time to prepare for the next day. Jones considers this a boon for staff wellness.
“During this pandemic it’s been extremely challenging for everybody,” he says. “That extra 45 minutes to an hour, it’s needed to lessen stress. I don’t look at it as a cost-saving measure. I look at it as an employee health-saving measure.”
Eight of the nine Charlottesville schools have dedicated kitchens where staff members prepare meals independently. (The high school kitchen prepares meals for the one elementary school without a kitchen.)
Meals are designed to travel well in covered trays. Not every popular menu item works. Nachos, for instance, got too soggy so they opted for cheese calzones.
One day in September, the menu lists chicken tenders with a roll or a Southwest veggie wrap. Another, the choice was between a turkey barbecue sandwich or grilled cheese. Examples of daily sides included Mexicali corn black beans, mac and cheese, romaine side salad and steamed broccoli.
After the pandemic hit, Jones and his staff were forced to scale back their plans to incorporate more scratch cooking into their menus. They still make key items, like spaghetti sauce with fresh ground beef, with some whole ingredients.
Despite the challenges, they continue to improve their menu. During the pandemic, the nutrition department worked with a diverse group of student interns to get feedback. During a series of Zoom meetings, Jones educated them about school lunch regulations and asked them what they’d add to the menu.
The students came up with a list of 50 items. Jones whittled the list down, based on feasibility, and ran taste tests.
The process made a big impact on their vegetarian offerings. The Southwestern veggie wrap came out of the process. So did a pasta salad with fresh vegetables, a black bean taco salad, and a grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup combo. Menu items that students suggested are labeled on menus.
Jones is pleased with the changes. “We keep working with students and parents and community groups just trying to continuously get better. That’s something that we pride ourselves on, something we will always continue to do.”