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Gary Petill, director of the food and nutrition services department for the SDUSD tells his story of arranging grab-and-go meals for students across the district during the coronavirus pandemic.

Stories from the front lines: San Diego Unified School District feeds kids across all economic backgrounds with grab-and-go items through summer break

By partnering with food banks and The Humane Society, the district’s director Gary Petill has been able to turn these drive-thrus into one-stop-shops for families during the pandemic

Gary Petill, director of the food and nutrition services department for the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), has had an almost 20-year career in foodservice, following 20 years in the hotel business. He thought he had seen it all. At least that’s what he thought until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

After rounding up all perishable foods, Petill and his team became “entrepreneurs” by creating an entirely new grab-and-go business at 26 sites across the district where meals for students and families are served at drive-thru locations strategically placed to help both the high-income families and also the large amount of students who receive reduced, free or direct certification meals.

“We’re now serving 20 out of 21 meals in a week to our families,” said Petill of SDUSD’s grab-and-go program, which covers entire families, not only the children. By working with San Diego food banks and The Humane Society, Petill and his team have also been able to act as a “one -stop shop,” providing families with shelf-stable groceries, feminine hygiene products, school supplies and dog or cat food.

The district’s more than 200 schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and remained closed throughout the end of the school year on June 9. The day before, Petill spoke with Food Management and laid out the district’s new plan for summer feeding. 

Here’s his story:

“Even though we have a pandemic and everything else going on in our country, we can say it’s been challenging but it’s been an opportunity because we’ve never served meals like this before. We’re serving meals differently than we ever expected to do but the greatest thing is that people rise to the occasion when there’s an emergency situation and our team has been phenomenal in food services and also the district who supports us.

We started on March 16, which was a Monday, and we found out on Friday the 13 of March that schools would be closed on the sixteenth and had to figure out how would we start to serve our kids. So we met that afternoon and removed food from over 200 kitchens to bring to our warehouse, which were mostly all perishables like fruits and vegetables from our local farmers, and we started on Monday with eight locations. We’ve now expanded to 26 over a short period of time.

We’ve had 26 locations for the last couple of months, but the first round was eight schools and all the food that came out of the schools. We made chicken Caesar salad, sandwiches and we utilized the food we had so that we didn’t waste any food in our kitchens. You should have seen our warehouse, it was unbelievable. Hundreds of cases of lettuce and apples and oranges, but it took two weeks and we used all of that food. Then we, of course, started to order food as well to back that up, which was a little bit of a challenge with the food chain at first, to get the products, as far as the amount, because everybody was ordering food too.

We bought from Sysco, that’s our main prime vendor, but we also bought from some other companies that we had never bought from before. We also got an emergency purchase order done right away through the district. In fact, our superintendent was there with me from day one and the first couple of weeks visiting our prep kitchen and our local sites. [Feeding the kids] was the main concern, more than the distant learning process because that took more time, we came into action the first weekend. Cindy Marten [superintendent of public education for SDUSD] was there to support us along with some of our board members and the big push was to make sure we’re reaching out to all of the kids who are free or reduced or on direct certification.

This program that we’re serving right now, any kids up to 18 years of age can get food along with their parents. These are grab-and-go drive-thru stations that we have set up at various locations throughout the city of San Diego and we really had to look hard at where the families lived. Not necessarily where they went to school, but where they lived, to find a school closest to them to set up these grab-and-go serving sites.

Immediately, on that Friday [March 13], I contacted the food banks, Feeding San Diego and the Food Bank of San Diego, to drop off shelf-stable groceries for a family of four for a week. This was along with the meals of breakfast and lunch and evening meals that we were serving. As time went on after a couple of weeks, we expanded to weekend meals that we would serve on Thursday for Saturday and Friday for Sunday, so they’d be getting four meals on Thursdays and Fridays. We’re now serving 20 out of 21 meals in a week to our families.

School ended yesterday for the traditional schools…and this is our summer program right now. We’re maintaining those 26 locations with the Food Bank and Feeding San Diego and we’ve also brought on the Humane Society with their location of PAWS, that’s been sending me dog and cat food every week. So, what we’ve become, is a one-stop shop. People can pick up their meals, a family of four can pick up their shelf-stable meals at food banks, they can get their dog and cat food and we even have feminine hygiene products once a month on Mondays. We also have some school supplies and instructional material. They’re all at our food stations because we became the one-stop-shop for everybody.

Our normal summer, we are working with the city of San Diego’s park and rec centers where we deliver food where kids are going swimming, camping, activities, a safe place for families to drop their kids off. That’s not happening this year as of yet.

We normally partner with the circus, people-only, at the kickoff that includes acrobats and tight-rope walkers. But this year, we got them to perform at the sites so there’s entertainment as the kids and parents are waiting in their cars and they’re going to do that for the rest of the summer, which I think will be really fun. We want to make this fun for kids and their families because everything is so difficult and hard for everyone right now, we’ve got to throw some fun into this.

We have five kitchens that are operating to prepare meals. We have 26 locations that are serving the meals and we have a support staff that some are working remotely, some are in the field. I want to have people working as remote as possible because I think it’s less chance of picking up COVID-19.

We are having all the people who signed up prior to COVID-19 to work the summer because these people who work at the kitchens or at parks and rec or serving our kids during the summer, they sign up ahead of time, which they did before COVID-19 and we are able to bring them all back for this. We’re bringing them back for two sessions and our district also has hazard pay. Right now, it’s up through June 30 where everyone gets time and a half for each hour if you’re working outside. If you’re working remotely, you don’t get it, but if you’re working in a kitchen or a serving location, they are getting hazard pay, which is really great.

Most of our people are 10-month workers, which would have ended today, but we are continuing to employ them throughout the summer. We’re going to need them, and we want to continue to support them and make sure their families are good and they’re able to financially survive because these are not the highest paying jobs in the world. So if we can keep them employed, it will be good for all of us in the long run when we can open school in some kind of way. Which, of course, hasn’t been determined yet.

For our kindergarten through eighth grade, we’re coming up with these things called superhero cafés. So, on the lunch areas where kids sit that are basically long picnic tables at 14 feet long, we’re looking at getting decals of superheroes and putting them on the seats themselves so the kids can sit next to their superhero character and be physically distanced from the next kid sitting on the other side.

One thing about COVID-19 is that it makes you create things, you become an entrepreneur. It’s like starting a new business. It’s exciting for me having 20 years in the hotel business before 18 years in the school business, it’s really, I hate to say it, a lot of fun to create innovative ways to serve our kids. Our team is on board and they realize none of this is easy but together, we can do it.”

This story was told to Holly Petre on June 10.

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