How One School District Is Feeding Its Students During Coronavirus Closures

Meals being prepared for delivery at Elk Grove Unified School District's Central Kitchen. (Courtesy of Elk Grove Unified School District)

As the spread of coronavirus triggers school shutdowns across the state, local officials are worried that students will not receive meals they depend on when they are in school.

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This week, the California Department of Education received a special waiver to continue federal and state-funded food service programs that provide meals to children throughout the closures. The programs are for students 18 and younger in communities where 50% or more of them qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

The waivers give schools the flexibility of serving the food without requiring that students consume it on campus.

“When a school or district closes, our first concern is the safety and care of our students,” said Tony Thurmond, state superintendent of public instruction. “Our Nutrition Services Division was proactive in reaching out to the USDA to request the necessary approval in anticipation of local educational agencies potentially having to close due to the coronavirus. That advanced planning, combined with the rapid response from the USDA, will allow districts to continue to provide their most vulnerable students with nutritious meals in the event of a closure.”

With the waiver, the Elk Grove Unified School District, just south of the City of Sacramento, but with some schools located inside the city border also, created drive-thru zones outside 13 schools so that families can pick up food for their children.

For breakfast, workers handed out yogurt, a grain item and fresh fruits, all to comply with federal school nutrition regulations. Lunch consisted of mini-pizzas and vegetables.

Families drive by Herman Leimbach Elementary in Elk Grove Unified to pick up meals while school is closed due to coronavirus concerns. (Courtesy of Elk Grove Unified School District)

"So it's like a little pizza crust, some shredded cheese marinara sauce so they can kind of build their own little pizzas," said Michelle Drake, head of the district's food service operations. "It also then has kohlrabi, sticks, baby carrots, oranges. So there's still going to be fresh fruits and vegetables in every one of these."

Drake said her team served 528 students on Wednesday. They expect to serve well over 1,300 students daily as word gets out. Drake said she's never handled a drive-thru meal operation, but her background in running restaurants helps.

Drake, who has been at her job for 10 years, said the district’s centralized kitchen is currently serving a critical role in preparing the food. The kitchen streamlines and standardizes how food is prepared and cooked for district schools.

"We have what we call packaging lines," Drake said. "And so I can pull all the items together, put them all into one container, wrap that through the machine. Then we take those, put them in racks, and we drive them out to school sites. Then the schools just take that whole container and they just hand it to the family."

But Drake said there is some worry on how the kitchen will maintain staffing if the closures continue and workers or their families get sick and need to stay home.

Drake said she has two workers at each of the 13 school sites, a team of 50 people making the meals and six drivers delivering the food to schools.

Children need to be present in order for families to receive the food. Meals are served 11 a.m. through 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday at participating schools.

Schools offering meals in Elk Grove include:

Florin Elementary School, Isabelle Jackson Elementary School, Samuel Kennedy Elementary School, Anna Kirchgater Elementary School, Herman Leimbach Elementary School, Charles Mack Elementary School, Barbara Comstock Morse Elementary School, Prairie Elementary School, David Reese Elementary School, Sierra Enterprise Elementary School, Union House Elementary School, Florin High School and Valley High School.

James Rutter Middle School students can pick up meals at David Reese Elementary School, Samuel Jackman Middle School students can pick up meals at Prairie Elementary School and John Reith Elementary School students can pick up meals at Valley High School.

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