JEFFERSON — During what was supposed to be “spring break,” student nutrition director Rebecca Blyth had only a few days to reorganize how the School District of Jefferson’s food service program would operate.
With the coronavirus looming, schools closed for the foreseeable future and ever-increasing restrictions placed on people’s work and personal lives, Blyth and other district officials knew the schools had a role to play in ensuring that all families had continued access to nutritious meals.
Over the break and the weekend that followed, coordinators overhauled the system.
Last week Monday, the school board gave the go-ahead to administrators to call in essential employees during the extended school closings, and food service workers were among them.
But Blyth did not want to put too much pressure on her regular food service staff, many of whom are elderly and potentially at greater risk were they to catch the virus.
Seven of the department’s 20 regular employees are continuing to work during the closures, while Blyth sought replacements for the others from among other school staff, especially paraprofessionals who ordinarily might serve as classroom aides.
Last week, the district surveyed families to gauge interest in the food distribution, and the response was strong.
District officials stressed that all families are able to participate free of cost. The distribution is open not only to those who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, or even to those who already have food service accounts with the district, but to all families with children in the area.
“Today, I even had one man drive up, saying he had one child in the Jefferson schools and four who were not in the Jefferson schools,” Blyth said. “They all got meals.”
Initially, planners had thought to require that the children had to be in the car in order for families to pick up the meals.
However, that swiftly changed as they considered the varied circumstances families might be facing — with some adults continuing in their “essential” jobs, some working out of their homes, some facing sudden unemployment or drastic hours cutbacks ...
Then there are those children who can’t travel easily with the parents, or shouldn’t leave home for one reason or another. As a result, officials recalculated and now parents and guardians are allowed to pick up food with or without children in the vehicle.
There are two pick-up days per week, with families receiving multiple days’ worth of meals at each distribution. Tuesday’s distribution — the first for the Jefferson district — included five meals per person (breakfast and lunch) to last through Thursday, while Thursday’s distribution will include six meals for the rest of the week.
Distributions at each site began at 11 a.m. Tuesday and ran for an hour.
Here’s how the process works: Families drive up to either of the two distribution sites, Sullivan Elementary School or Jefferson High School. Remaining in their vehicles, they tell workers how many children they need meals for. Then the families drive up to the distribution tables, which have just been cleaned. One person in the vehicle gets out to pick up the food, and then the table is cleaned and disinfected again before the next family’s food is set out.
In addition, those taking part in the process are instructed to maintain 6-foot “social distancing” at all times to prevent the spread of illness.
For the first day of distribution, the district prepared meals for 100 at the Sullivan site and 330 for the Jefferson site.
The response was great, Blyth said, though she would like to see even more families participate.
Families, for their part, had effusive thanks for the workers who had assembled the meals and assisted with the distribution.
“You guys are doing fabulous,” one mom shouted as she returned to her car, meals in hand.
The employees who had taken on food-distribution roles received online training before reporting to their new duties.
“This is something new for us, non-congregate feeding,” Blyth said. “During the summer school program, we’ve had congregate feeding, where the food must be consumed on site. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work under these circumstances.”
The meals distributed to families included a mix of shelf-stable, perishable, fresh and frozen foods, all individually wrapped.
For example, the Tuesday distribution included frozen pizza, and there also was a grilled cheese sandwich that would have to be warmed. The goal is to provide a variety of food with good nutritional balance. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, crackers, cereal, cheese, yogurt, white and chocolate milk and a variety of juices rounded out the offerings.
As soon as the first distribution was over Tuesday, it was back to work for Blyth and her staff. I compliance with Gov. Tony Evers’ orders, only nine people could work at a time in four different shifts to prepare the next batch of meals.
“Everyone is doing something different, but everyone’s doing something for the cause,” Blyth said. “Yesterday, we had the packers working, getting all of the meals bagged up.”
At noon, when Tuesday’s distribution officially wrapped up, another batch of workers started their shift, unpacking new deliveries of food, rewashing all of the produce and removing the lids from boxes so that the packers slated to work the next day would have an easier start.
Blyth said that she was delighted that a couple of Jefferson Police Department officers showed up at the high school for the first distribution to make sure everything went smoothly.
They were very welcoming of all and wound up helping with the entire process, she said.
Blyth said she will be looking for input from community members as to how to make the process even smoother and how to ensure the district is reaching everyone.
Depending on the need, she said, it is possible that the district would move to distribution in several neighborhood sites. Delivery even is a possibility down the line, given extreme circumstances.