‘Kids must be fed, no matter what’

‘Kids must be fed, no matter what’

School nutrition professionals reflect on chaos, change, and challenges of providing food for students and families during the pandemic

BRATTLEBORO — Despite statewide school closures that resulted in overnight changes for families and school staff, school nutrition professionals stepped up every day to ensure our community remained fed. What a challenging year this has been for everyone working in school kitchens!

School communities throughout Windham County are grateful for these unsung heroes in the community who nourish children each day.

Last spring, while teachers, students, and families were making the difficult shift to remote learning, these food service professionals continued to work in person in school kitchens, making thousands of meals for youth in our community.

They faced the anxiety of working in person while so many others were sheltering at home. They faced the fear that they or their loved ones might be infected, or that they would spread the virus in their workplace.

Steve Napoli, the head custodian at Putney Central School, was part of the core team working in the kitchen there in the early days of the pandemic. Napoli said it felt “eerie” at the start but they knew that they had to get meals out to take care of the community.

Through a series of interviews, we wanted to learn more about the effects of the pandemic on school nutrition professionals and other staff working in kitchens in Windham County schools.

What follows is a sampling of their inspiring responses.

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Many changes needed to happen quickly when school kitchens made the switch to delivering meals remotely.

“The whole meal preparation system changed. It got crunched into a shorter period of time,” said Steve Hed, food service director at Putney Central School.

Just days after the normal life shut down in 2020, the Windham Southeast School District was providing meals to 1,823 students in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney, with the support of the F.M. Kuzmeskus bus company and a cadre of volunteers, teachers, and paraprofessionals. Meals were dropped at central hubs and other drop points along the various bus routes.

Along with the crunch of preparing meals in time to be delivered to families by bus, the packaging requirements shifted as well.

Ariane Lavoie, also of Putney Central School, said it best: “Less kids, more packaging!”

Schools with salad bars, like Putney Central and Central School in Bellows Falls, noticed a difference. “We got a salad bar going in 2019, and it really took off,” said Erica Frank, site manager at Central School. “We had so many options, and it was so fun. It helped the kids try new things, and we don't have that this year.”

On the other hand, staff in these programs found that eliminating the salad bar simplified food prep, which, in turn, helped free kitchen staff to meet additional packaging requirements.

The challenge of finding foods that could be pre-packaged easily and travel well allowed schools to try out new recipes. Steve Hed reported that he and his team are trying new things in the kitchen “like a gluten-free, vegan quinoa salad with garbanzo beans for protein, and all kinds of veggies.” They also added a Peruvian recipe for black bean and rice burritos. Both recipes have been “a big hit,” he said.

With the switch to universal free meals for all students, food service directors' paperwork has decreased. However, last spring, developing the meal delivery system added a brand new challenge to the job, including mapping routes to efficiently deliver food to families throughout the school district.

* * *

When asked what kept them going, school nutrition professionals spoke passionately about community food security needs and the importance of feeding their students. The physical act of going to work helped keep their spirits up as well.

“It keeps me going to have something to do every day when I wake up in the morning, someplace to go,” said Linda Griffin, who works in all three Brattleboro elementary schools. “I'm not the kind of person who can sit around doing nothing. Having this job has definitely saved me from going stir crazy.”

Thinking about their biggest challenges, most spoke about missing the students.

Academy School's lead cook, Jasmine Star Nightingale, summed it up perfectly, with tears in her eyes, saying, “My biggest challenge is not seeing the children. It is very painful. They're all just wonderful kids, and just seeing them smiling every day...I miss that!”

Many changes happened quickly, and it was a challenge to adjust.

Lori Reynolds normally works at Dummerston School, serving meals to 80 to 100 students each day. When schools closed, she started reporting to work daily in the centralized kitchen at Academy School, where meals were being prepared and packaged for multiple schools in WSESD. She was put in charge of the alternative meals - approximately 28 daily orders for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and/or vegan meals.

“I'm learning new things, which is a little bit challenging for me, but I'm doing it!” said Reynolds. She paid acute attention to detail to fulfill these orders, which she said “got [her] brain going very quickly” first thing in the morning.

Another challenge for school nutrition professionals with children was managing child care and supporting remote learning while working in the kitchen during the day.

Jill Harnish from Oak Grove School described the challenges faced by many working parents, saying, “It's hard because my youngest is a senior this year, and he's in special education.” When she gets home, she helps him with his homework.

Community support has helped keep everyone going, in the forms of additional school staff and volunteers coming in to help the kitchens and community expressions of gratitude for the invaluable work of school nutrition professionals.

When schools closed, Nancy Gagnon, the office clerk at Putney Central School, began working in the kitchen regularly, helping prep food and pack meals.

“One of the biggest things the community is doing is showing appreciation for the effort that this whole team of people have provided,” she said. “We've been getting some feedback from families ... it buoys you and makes you really feel like your efforts are being appreciated.”

“There's a back and forth: connecting with families and knowing that they're happy with the food they're getting, and you feel happy that you're doing it,” Gagnon said.

* * *

Many people mentioned the satisfaction they get, both from knowing that they are feeding children who need this food, and from their pride in its quality.

Mary Beth Peterson, a kindergarten paraeducator at Putney Central School, helped out regularly in the school kitchen during the spring, when her students were fully remote. Working in the school kitchen gave her a new perspective, she said.

“The quality of the food and the personalization that our food service staff put into what they do is phenomenal,” she said proudly. “The quality of the food is wow-I-can't-believe-it! The diversity and the kid-friendly food - it's quality stuff.”

“I am a firm believer that kids must be fed, no matter what,” said Thristan Coke, school nutrition site manager at Bellows Falls Union High School. “What's going on is not their fault, and they shouldn't be punished for anything. So I take pride in that...I know what my kid is like when he's hungry; I can't imagine anybody else's, so I am happy to feed them.”

* * *

We also asked what brought these folks joy in their lives and what they were grateful for.

Jess Boucher of Dummerston School shared that some of her joy comes from “seeing smiling kids, happy kids, and when the kids tell me they like the food and how good of a job I'm doing.”

On the topic of gratitude, people were universally grateful for their families, health, and jobs.

Erica Frank from Central School spoke specifically about her appreciation for her co-workers. “I'm grateful for the team who comes together at this time to make it work, no drama and just getting the job done,” she said.

“People coming together and bringing lots of different skill sets has been really nice.”

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