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Christine Clarahan, director of food and nutrition services for School City of Hammond, Ind., and her foodservice team are following social distancing while feeding about 2,000 students each day during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stories from the front lines: An Indiana K-12 food service director’s story of feeding kids during the coronavirus crisis

The food service team at School City of Hammond, Ind., is determined to feed children through rain, sleet, snow and a flurry of announcements from the USDA.

Christine Clarahan MS, SNS, RDN, director of food and nutrition services for School City of Hammond, Ind., and her foodservice team of 39 employees are following social distancing protocols while feeding about 2,000 students each day during this unprecedented pandemic that’s affecting every school district in the U.S.

Clarahan took time out to tell her story so far to Food Management, from getting the news to jumping headlong into planning to mobilizing six sites with a drive-thru setup to making adjustments and working with many segments of the community. This is a CEP district, so “we know there is a real need for children to get their meals from us,” Clarahan says. “The ladies and gentlemen working in our department are true superheroes who are doing what they are doing because they believe in feeding the community.”

Christine_C_from_Indiana_schools.jpgDid we mention it snowed (hard) the first day, and two days later the whole operation was soaked with rain? There are lots of rainclouds, but some silver linings here and there as Clarahan and her district deal with one of the nation’s biggest storms ever. Here’s her story:

“We have been closed and doing ‘eLearning’ since March 16. This week [March 23], is our district’s spring break and then next week, we are doing eLearning. My boss, the assistant superintendent of operations, met with us the Thursday before our schools closed to let us know that we needed to come up with a plan and our superintendent called all of the district administrative team together the next day. We knew that we needed to take care of our community by providing meals, and that included—for the first time in history—feeding over spring break as well. So, we had about 1 and a half days plus the weekend to make this work—and we did.

We currently have six elementary schools (we have 19 school buildings total in the district) that are providing the drive-thru service model. In just the 1 and a half weeks we’ve been doing this, we have done some adjusting based on how each day goes. We did run out of food the first week we were doing meals. That Wednesday, we tried providing five meals per child (three lunches and two breakfasts) and the demand was too much for us at two of our sites—lines causing big traffic issues—the police helped and eventually blocked off entrances—so we knew that handing out that much (we had been trying two-day a week service) was not going to work for us.

We have an incredible assistant director, Lynn Strle, who has been working with our Teamsters and our training and catering manager, Andrea Maldonado, going to all of our school buildings to assess the inventory and having inventory moved to the six open sites. The six open sites are assembling all the meals on site in those kitchens.

We have been doing breakfast sandwiches, pizza, chicken tenders and nuggets, nachos, lunch meat sandwiches with assorted breads, nachos with cheese and salsa, calzones, Bosco sticks with marinara sauce, yogurt, cheese sticks and turkey sticks. We did also give out all the produce we had on hand that would go bad if we didn’t hand it out in bulk. It felt good to give that to the community and not have to throw it away.

We are using the Summer Food Service Program and have all six of our sites approved through that USDA program. Indiana has a dynamic group of individuals working at the state agency who have made things so much easier on us—they are wonderful. We also have our IDOE field specialist, Mike Downey, who has been helpful in walking us through the process [of working with the USDA]. When new waivers were announced for meal pattern flexibility as well as who picks up the meals I know that Mike and everyone at IDOE SNP will be helping to provide us with the guidance we need to continue to nourish our community in a fair and responsible way.

All of our employees (approximately 140 individuals) are being paid their normal pay rate and hours to stay home at least through May 1 (that is the current date all Indiana schools are closed until). Those who are working at being paid and additional 0.5 times their rate for every hour they work. We currently have 39 employees working right now (including myself, Lynn and Andrea) to prepare all our meals. They are working miracles to get all of these meals prepared.

We are averaging 2,000 students a day currently. We are following social distancing protocols; we have been working with the Lake County Health Department and we are providing half-sheets of paper to each car with safety information. We have our chemical supplier—SFSPac—providing us with information on how to properly use our chemicals—specifically the germicide, which is CDC-recognized to kill COVID.

It is a challenge to figure out how we are going to financially keep doing what we are doing. The NSLP/SBP/SFSP, they are all entitlement programs meaning we get reimbursed for the meals we are preparing. While we are preparing a good amount of meals, we are not doing nearly the volume we normally do during the school year, and that is very frightening to think about.

There are always going to be a small majority of people who think we should be doing more—or delivering to each house—or not being out there at all. It takes practice, but these are the voices you have to ignore. And personally, I work hard to follow all the USDA guidelines and I am fortunate my boss and our superintendent respect that and support me in that. It has been somewhat difficult to see on social media that some districts are being instructed by their leaders to ignore rules and regulations and that makes things harder for all of us when we have to explain why we are following the rules. But that isn’t anything we can’t handle.

The positive outpouring of support from our community is what is keeping us going. When you have little ones screaming “Thank you!” from their cars, that is the most encouraging thing. We also were granted $36,000 from No Kid Hungry to help us purchase necessary supplies to keep this meal service type going. My advice to other directors and their teams is to lean on each other for support! This is too much for any one person or district to figure out all on your own. We have a strong regional food service director’s group and being able to reach out to each other and get support…that makes this easier.

It’s my hope that when things get back to normal (whatever that will look like) that people remember the important role that the K-12 food and nutrition departments have played in this crisis and treat us all with the respect we deserve.” 

As told to Tara Fitzpatrick on March 26.

Contact Tara at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie

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