This past spring, the nutrition services team for the Tuscaloosa County School System in Alabama had taken up the challenge posed by the corinavirus pandemic to keep students fed during the last months of the 2019-2020 school year, when the pandemic forced the schools to close. With the advent of summer, the program has maintained that approach with few modifications.
“We’re actually doing the same thing we’d been doing since we closed down at the start of COVID,” notes Donette Worthy, director of child nutrition. “We are running two buses to the community and we have five—and soon to be six—drive-thru locations. We are still giving out seven days’ worth of meals—14 total—to any child 18 and under, whether they are in our school system or not.”
The meals are distributed between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. every Monday and include fresh fruits such as apples and oranges as well as a gallon of milk with each set of meals.
The nutrition services program works with local distributor Osborne Brothers, “and they’ve done a phenomenal job sourcing products for us,” Worthy says. “They have taken a lot of stress off me by finding products for us without me having to find them. I feel I’ve been spoiled, actually.”
Meal packs await families at one of the Tuscaloosa County meal distribution points.
The menu is not exactly what Worthy says she’d prefer in a perfect world—she says she’s not a big fan of individually wrapped (IW) products from vendors—but concedes that they are nutritious and definitely efficient under the current circumstances.
The technical end of the school year and the start of summer feeding on May 27 did involve a turnover in staffing as nutrition services team member contracts ended with the end of the school year, but, as in previous years, those who wanted to sign up for summer work to earn extra pay were invited to do so.
“We actually have a larger team that opted to work that we’ve had in summers past, and they are really pulling together because we have six [distribution sites] and [used] only five because I didn’t have enough staff [for all six]” during the spring, Worthy remarks. However, enough staff plus volunteers have signed on to open that sixth site as well for the summer program, “so that will be great for the families out that way,” Worthy says.
Meal counts in the early going for the summer feeding program have been larger than in a typical summer, but the spring saw program revenues far below what they would have been had school been in session, she notes, explaining that the loss of a la carte sales is a significant factor in the disparity.
“We have 34 schools and [an overall] 51% [free-reduced percentage] but that goes from 20% at some schools to 95% to 96% at others, so we thrive off a la carte here, and that missing revenue is just astronomical for our program.”
As for this summer, “the USDA waivers are helping us because in a normal summer kids have to come to campus and stay on campus or stay at the mobile feeding sites,” whereas the waivers allow the food to be picked up and taken, Worthy says. “I know this is just a waiver, but I hope it’s something USDA will look at adopting full time because we can help more families if this became normal.”
In all, she says the whole COVID experience has been a mix of positives and negatives for her department. On the one hand, “I feel that our programs are being put in the spotlight in a positive way and I’m very thankful for that—I think it’s about time that our teams get the credit that they deserve. However, I also hate that on the flip side we are having to deal with a lack of funds and things like that.”