JEFFERSON — On March 13, the last day before the School District of Jefferson closed for spring break, students learned that they’d have an extended hiatus from classes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Only days later, following a statewide school closure mandate, they learned that they would not be returning to the school buildings at all, but instead would be learning virtually, from home.
Then before that extended break for students even ended, the district took emergency measures to assure that all students had their nutrition needs met.
Following swift action in a special spring break school board meeting, the district set up an emergency food service system to run while schools were closed. It declared food service workers “essential workers,” but also sought additional help so that those food service staffers who were more vulnerable in terms of health would not be required to serve.
A week later, food distribution and delivery began. The initial distribution day was March 24, staffed by a core group of regular food service workers joined by a number of paraprofessionals who had previously served as classroom aides.
Rebecca Blyth, student nutrition director for the Jefferson schools, noted that the district has taken every precaution to prevent potential disease transmission.
“Our staff is healthy, sanitizing work areas and wearing gloves and masks, changing gloves and washing hands often,” she said.
Kathy Volk, director of student services for the district, initially served as food service manager, coordinating with Blyth to roll out the initial free meals distribution effort.
In early April, Richard Lehman, Jefferson High School’s associate principal and co-director of the district’s summer school program, stepped into the role as food service manager, as Volk was handling many other duties, including making sure every student with an individualized education plan was served during the transition to online learning.
This assured Volk could focus on her core student services responsibilities.
“We currently have 58 families on the delivery list and this supports over 140 students,” Blyth said. “To date, we have served 25,638 meals. The majority of our families pick up meals at Jefferson High School and at Sullivan Elementary School.”
She noted that the district had established Sullivan Elementary School and Jefferson High School as the initial distribution sites, but it quickly became evident that some families could only be reached through home delivery.
The local bus company, Dousman Transportation Co., managed by Jamie Magner, provides three buses to assist in the deliveries.
Overall participation continues to grow, though there have not been any sharp “spikes,” Lehman said.
“Our list grows weekly,” he said.
Breaking down the numbers by week, in week #1 the district provided 2,159 meals. That rose to 3,682 the second week and 4,081 the third.
In the fourth week, the district provided 4,588 meals, and the week that followed saw 4,953 meals picked up and delivered.
This past week — potentially in connection with local families having received their stimulus check — the district saw numbers drop a bit to 4,907, Blyth said.
If a family from the Jefferson school district is unable to pick up the free meals at the two main drive-through distribution sites, they may contact the food service manager or director at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or social worker Kim Heine at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for meals to be dropped off.
“Families do reach out and contact us, and sometimes we initiate the contact with families,” Lehman said.
In addition to serving all children and families who wish to participate and who live within the School District of Jefferson, the Jefferson food service program also makes deliveries to open-enrolled families from other districts such as Lake Mills and Fort Atkinson if those families are located on one of the district’s established routes.
Food service planners have tried to create meals that appeal to children. This week, she said, highlights included a Cinco de Mayo-themed meal and also a homestyle turkey meal with gravy, fresh-baked potatoes, fruit and dinner rolls.
“Our meals are primarily heat-and-go items so children can have a warm meal,” Blyth said.
The Jefferson district has seen great support from the community, with several organizations and businesses donating food for the program.
“We are very thankful for their support,” she said, recognizing Crystal Farms of Lake Mills for its massive donation of cheese, local Girl Scout troops for providing cookies, and Martin Brower/McDonald’s of Whitewater for adding two weeks worth of cookie deliveries with 24 cookies per pack.
“It takes a village,” Lehman said, recognizing the contributions of those in the surrounding community.
“The Jefferson school food crew members are superheroes without a cape. Instead, they wear aprons,” Blyth said, adding that she is very proud of the commitment her team has shown.
In the last week, school planners have begun to look forward to the summer to visualize what a meal program would look like at that time, given the uncertainties surrounding whether the district would be offering online summer school when schools are required to be closed through June and whether there would be an opportunity for in-person classes at any time during the summer.
For the last several years, the Jefferson schools have provided free meals to all children in the district who choose to participate in conjunction with the summer school program.
With the shape of that program up in the air this year, summer food service is likely to look different than it has in recent years.
However, Lehman said, district officials are committed to continuing to serve the need in the local community.