The school cafeteria has gone dark these days.

When COVID-19 hit hard, food service managers around the country revamped food service on the fly. Rikkilynn Starliper, child nutrition director at the Umatilla School District, remembers clearly what happened after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s closure of K-12 schools came down on March 12.

“We started feeding kids the first day of closure on March 16,” Starliper said. “We had to have a plan in place for Monday. We didn't get guidance from the Oregon Department of Education until after we already had started feeding kids.”

Instead of dishing out to students as they stood in the cafeteria serving line, Starliper’s team bagged up meals and put them on buses. Each student received breakfast, lunch and dinner. Between March 16 and June 5, the team prepared 155,091 meals for the district’s 1,430 students.

“We had the buses loaded by 10 in the morning,” Starliper said.

Schools must feed students whether they attend school in person or online. The program continues in the summer even though school is out.

School Nutrition Association spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavener marveled at the transformation from in-school dining to remote meal distribution.

“It was amazing to see school nutrition professionals move from serving in school cafeterias to curbside in a matter of days,” she said. “We saw them quickly ramp up emergency feeding programs.”

The pandemic has bumped operating costs for many school districts as they pay more to feed their students. The Umatilla district spent about $60,000 more than usual on nutrition during the spring. Food service employees worked more hours and meals need more packaging.

When summer hit, Umatilla started using a specially outfitted van to deliver meals, visiting four separate locations around town each day. On a recent morning, district food service employees Bobbi Hughes and Stephanie Pollitron parked the van on Umatilla’s South Hill. Soon socially distanced students or parents took turns standing at the service window. Inside, Hughes and Pollitron, wearing masks, gathered food and stuffed it into green plastic bags, often breakfast, lunch and dinner for entire families. On this day, the menu included tamales, teriyaki chicken burgers, cheese bagel sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, cereal, milk and an array of fresh produce that included watermelon, cucumbers, strawberries and grapes. Sometimes the menu includes homemade pizza.

“Good morning,” Hughes said to a teenage boy through the service window. “How many would you like today?”

She sat on a plastic crate, a perch from which she could easily reach boxes containing milk. She scooped about 30 cartons into two bags for his family. Behind her, Pollitron gathered other items. Adult family members may purchase lunch for two dollars and breakfast for one.

After the boy left with his load of food, Hughes said most of her customers come like clockwork. One teen sets his alarm to come each day to pick up food for him and his brother. The van, financed by an ODE Summer Expansion grant, wears a bright wrap with the words “FREE FOOD HERE FOR ALL KIDS 1-18.” The vehicle delivers food to four sites each day, Monday through Thursday.

Isis Ilias walked to the van from her home in a nearby neighborhood with her three children. Ilias said it eases anxiety to be able to use family income for other things during this time, rather than buying food. The food, she said, is high quality.

“It is the best of the best,” she said. “Our kids are getting the most nutritious food to keep their minds and bodies growing.”

The Pendleton School District also uses a food van to deliver meals to three different sites, two in town and one on the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation. Director of Nutrition Services Suzanne Howard said her team went through the transition without complaint.

“We knew we still wanted to feed kids,” Howard said. “That wasn’t even a question. Everyone just got together and just made it work.”

Schools don’t have to worry about payment from students during the summer. In June, the Department of Agriculture extended a waiver that allows school districts to provide free meals all summer.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Aug. 31 that the USDA will extend the summer meal program into the fall months.

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy and nutritious food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” Perdue said in a news release. "This extension of summer program authority will employ summer program sponsors to ensure meals are reaching all children – whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually – so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”

“We are in the middle of a pandemic - schools don’t need an additional layer of interaction with students,” 

said Pratt-Heavener of the School Nutrition Association. 

Pratt-Heavener said her organization is pushing for legislation to provide free meals for students throughout the school year.

She said schools actually opening this fall will forego salad bars and lunch lines in the cafeteria and have lunch delivered directly to the classrooms.

The Umatilla School District seems uniquely positioned to survive. Superintendent Heidi Sipe credits Starliper who arranged to fund for the van and for a farm-to-school program that provides fresh produce. The nutrition director also helped organize the district’s After the Bell breakfast program that has been in place several years. Because of the program, students and teachers are already accustomed to having breakfast in the classroom.

“One of best things about Rikkilynn is that her number one emphasis is on keeping kids fed and healthy. Always. When we’re in a quandary, we already know what the answer will be, we’re going to err on the side of the kids every time and worry about the logistics later,” Sipe said.

The superintendent worries about parents. Some have lost their jobs or struggle with reduced income. They are stressed about finances and worry about the virus.

She shook her head.

“It is a real perfect storm for creating food insecurity in kids.”

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