On March 15 New Hampshire’s Londonderry School District, along with the rest of the districts in the state, closed its schools in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The next day, Londonderry Director of Dining Services Amanda Venezia launched a districtwide remote learning meal program for all students.
“Our governor went to remote learning at 1 p.m. on a Sunday. So we had food ready for curbside pickup within 22 hours,” Venezia says. Two days later Venezia and her team began offering the option to have meals delivered as well. “It was a very quick mobilization and redeployment of our staff into a brand-new business model.”
Eleven percent of Londonderry district’s 3,800 students qualify for free or reduced meals, and ensuring that those children still had access to healthy breakfasts and lunches was a top priority. But that’s not all. “We also wanted to provide normalcy and consistency for our students,” Venezia explains.
The program offers meal delivery every weekday. Breakfasts are cold options like yogurt with cereal and apple slices or a bagel with cream cheese and peach slices. Monday’s lunches are hot options like pizza sticks with marinara sauce. Lunches for Tuesday through Friday are cold or reheatable—like turkey and cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers, or pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. All of the lunches come with fruit and vegetable sides. Meals are free for students who qualify; those who pay full price are charged $1.75 for breakfast and the regular lunch price.
The new menu offerings look a lot like what students could buy at school prior to the shutdown. The main difference? The district is relying more heavily on individually wrapped items these days for added safety. “This is not a foodborne illness,” Venezia notes. “But we want to take every precaution.”
Weekly menus are posted on the district dining services page on Mondays, with the note that substitutions may occur. Parents can place online orders for delivery using the digital menu platform Nutrislice. A link to the ordering page is on the dining services website, and Venezia created a YouTube video tutorial walking parents through using the platform. Families opting for curbside pickup don’t have to order ahead.
Once the orders are in, staffers divide and conquer to quickly assemble the meals. The delivery addresses are divided into three routes, each with their own delivery van and two-person delivery team. Then the meals are loaded onto the vans and sent out for delivery between 10:30 and 11 a.m. “We ring the doorbell, drop the meal off, change our gloves and wave from six feet away,” says Venezia.
Curbside pickup is available on Mondays and Wednesdays at Londonderry High School from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. One staffer takes the student’s name while another places the lunch bag in their car trunk while wearing gloves. “Hosting pick up on just two days helps limit contact and exposure. And we put the food directly in their trunk to minimize contact,” Venezia says.
Venezia and her team are currently serving around 200 meals per day. Around half of those are being delivered, but Venezia expects the number of deliveries to increase as the outbreak becomes more severe.
Just like cafeteria fare, remote learning meals are made to meet the USDA’s school meal standards. And while the standards are there to ensure breakfasts and lunches are healthy and well rounded, in this setting, they’ve created a unique challenge. While a student might decide she doesn’t want milk or a side of fruit in the cafeteria line, “we’ve had to add all the components of a reimbursable meal in the lunch bag,” Venezia says. That’s led to an increase in the district’s food costs.
The good news is that sourcing products and ingredients hasn’t been an issue so far. Days before New Hampshire’s schools shut down, the buying group representing the state’s 155 school districts had a conference call with its distributor to ensure the districts would get what they needed. “I knew breakfast and lunch kits would be the first thing to go, and we wanted to make sure we had them,” says Venezia.
Now two weeks into operating, swift action and precision organization have made the remote learning meal program a huge success. “It’s been incredibly well received in our community, and it’s been incredible to serve our community in a way that’s so humbling,” Venezia says. Compliments and thank yous from parents, along with photos of kids eating their lunches, have filled the bulletin board at dining services headquarters, she notes.
The district plans to continue offering remote learning meals for as long as the shutdown continues, and it seems likely that more and more families may start to opt in. “We see the numbers increasing daily as more families are applying for free and reduced lunch because they’ve lost income,” Venezia says. “The need will only increase from here.”