The return to school in the fall brings many memories, but eating school lunches is typically a memory we prefer to forget. However, the story is a little different now. During a pandemic, when students are not necessarily stepping foot onto school grounds, meals are now a valued commodity.
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon, daily life changed for all students, and Eugene’s 4J district was there with a response. Nutrition Services Director Holly Langan prepared for the inevitability of closed schools and created a plan that would accommodate all students in the district.
“Over the weekend we converted regional kitchens into production sites,” Langan says, adding, “We had to come up with a system that had everything already prepackaged in a bag and ready to be handed out.”
Despite the short time frame, they set up six different pick-up sites across the district and came out with meals for all students on March 16, serving around 1,300 students within the first month.
With help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Child Nutrition Services program, 4J could support the cost of feeding all students in the district.
“The federal and state governments have been incredibly responsive to the needs of families and using school district systems to really support communities when [there is] this high volume of need.” Langan says of the Child Nutrition Services program.
With big goals came big struggles. Langan mentions the difficulty of retraining all existing staff members to fit their new jobs. However, she recalls how the staff members were eager to help the district.
“The district, the leadership, the community supporting us… without all of this support we wouldn’t be successful.” Langan says, and mentions that for the kitchen staff, “This wasn’t what they were originally hired to do, and yet they have just been rockstars.”
Not only did the team face new struggles, it was a new department. Up until the past year, school meals were handled by a global food services provider instead of within the district. When Langan became the nutrition services director, she says, she made it the district’s goal to cut down on single use packaging and to serve higher quality and less processed meals. When the pandemic hit, this goal became more difficult.
“While there are a lot of changes that have been made in our food services program, some of them could not be continued during a pandemic — such as having salad bars. We just can’t do that right now,” says 4J spokesperson Kerry Delf. “You will still see changes in our menus.” She adds,“The sort of things they are eating are brown rice with sweet chili tofu and edamame, or black bean tamales.”
When the fall came, it brought a new set of tools for the district’s bus drivers. The ability to deliver lunches by bus to families who could not pick up from a designated location within the short time frame allowed more children to be fed. With four more school pick up sites and a longer window of time, the district is currently feeding around 3,000 students.
Picking up meals is as easy as coming to a pick up site and asking for your preferences. Meals can be made vegetarian, gluten-free, soy-based or dairy free upon request. Visitors to a pick-up site will see kids riding their scooters down to the school, while other children run from their parents car to grab the meals. However, a student of the 4J district does not need to be present to get a meal.
At the West 11th pick-up site, Arts and Technology Academy at Adams Middle School, parents share excitement and express how important these meals are. “I don’t know what my family would do without these lunches,” one parent says.
For all students in the 4J district, even if schools return to a hybrid learning format, all meals will be free through June 2021 due to an extension of the Child Nutrition Services program, making it possible to feed all who need it.