By: Jerrick Knippel
We can all agree COVID19 has changed our daily life. But have you wondered how the pandemic has impacted the school food service system and the student lunches? Missing ingredients, menu requirements, low staffing, new protocols; these are just a few of the challenges that are faced every day. Have no fear! Students are provided with meals every day because the food service heroes of our schools are taking these challenges head on.
My partner Olivia and I were given the eye opening opportunity of working alongside some of the food service staff of County Public Schools. On our first day we visited an elementary school. We observed how the school breakfast program was run. It wasn’t long before we were put into the kitchen to help the workers. I was slightly taken off guard as I walked through the lunch line doors into the kitchen as it was much smaller than expected. The room was about the size of an average classroom. One third of it was for the lunch line and food holding stations with the remaining two thirds filled with ovens, tables, and other kitchen equipment.
Eventually, we made our way into the middle of the kitchen so we could assemble dinner bags to send home with some of the students. Mac and cheese, dried fruit, juice and cereal were put into a plastic bag and then tied. Meanwhile, some of the students filed through the lunch line creating their lunch trays. The three workers were frantically heating up food, stocking the holding stations and helping the students with their selections. Pancakes were being served as a lunch option that day, and were to be paired with yogurt to make a grain protein alternative combination. The yogurt could only be served with the pancakes because there was a limited supply. One of the cafeteria staff helped the students with their selections, so that those who selected the pancakes also got yogurt. So many things were happening at once. Between all of the staff members cooking and students making their choices, I didn’t know what to watch. Yet, amidst all of the multitasking, the kitchen staff handled the lunch rush flawlessly. Olivia and I eventually ran out of food after putting together a couple hundred bags. This marked the end of our time at the school. We thanked the kitchen staff for introducing us to a school foodservice kitchen, then went home to prepare for the next day.
The next school we visited was a middle school. Walking through the cafeteria doors I was taken back by how different this kitchen was. It was huge! There were three lunch lines, two giant new ovens, two cooling stations, two heating stations and two giant stainless steel tables. After getting a tour, we quickly got to work. We assembled hot dogs, chicken patties and cheese steaks then wrapped them up to be sold at lunch. It wasn’t long before the kids came knocking at the lunch line doors. Bursting through, the kids filed through the lunch lines grabbing whatever food options appealed to them — most had their eyes, stomach and heart on that pepperoni pizza.
The kids were moving so fast we almost couldn’t keep the holding stations stocked with food options. Sadly, there was much less pizza available than normal that day because of food shortages. The pizza supply would run out half way through each of the lunch shifts. It was interesting to see that a few students walked out of the lunch line without grabbing an alternative meal. Some students would rather go hungry the rest of the day than grab a meal other than pizza. Wow. The MCPS food service heroes didn’t let this go unchallenged. They took the extra step of talking to the students hoping they could entice them to grab another meal. Sometimes the students would grab something else, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Either way, it was great seeing some of the passion these staff members have for helping their students. This was another great experience that really helped me understand some of the obstacles the food service staff faces.
Going into this rotation, I really wasn’t expecting these two experiences to be that different from one another. If the schools are in the same county then they should function the same right? Wrong. Every school’s food service staff is faced with their own unique obstacles. They do, however, have one thing in common – they receive their food from the same place. All of the schools in the county are dealing with food shortages because of the COVID19 pandemic. This poses a serious challenge for the food service workers on a daily basis. How can each of the schools serve their predetermined lunch menus if they aren’t receiving all of the food they need? How are the food service workers able to fulfill all of the food group requirements for lunch if they’re piecing together menu items last minute? The knowledge and experience of the Montgomery County Public School food service heroes are the answer. The staff members use their critical thinking skills to substitute menu items with what is available in their kitchen. The middle school we visited was low on some of the food items needed for some of the meals that the menu advertised. Adapting to the challenge, the staff members then cooked and sliced spicy chicken patties that they placed on top of salads. Not only was this substitution genius, but the salad looked delicious! We were told making these last minute decisions has become the new normal. These substitutions are no easy task. The kitchen has to look at what items weren’t delivered, what’s in stock, what combinations of food will follow the meal component requirements and how to vary the vegetables offered throughout the week to ensure color requirements are met.
Though the food service workers face several obstacles stemming from the COVID19 pandemic, they step up to ensure the students are well fed throughout the year. The adaptability and passion behind these workers is astonishing. These heroes deserve much appreciation for their work. Hopefully the food systems that fuel our public schools will normalize soon so students can eat all of the pepperoni pizza they please, and help to lighten the load of the public school food service workers. Thank you school food service staff members for everything that you do.