Lunch ladies’ workload doubles during the pandemic

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Preston Meier

OHS lunch ladies providing safe grab and go breakfast for students at school

Preston Meier, Writer

Something that everyone has in common is that they eat and in school lunchtime is many students favorite time of the day. Kitchen staffs for schools nationwide work hard everyday to provide students with lunch and breakfast options in school. These meals are very important for students to be able to focus during class time, and on top of that it provides meals for students who might not be fortunate enough to have food at home. When the pandemic hit and online classes started, schools nationwide had to find a way to still provide meals for these students. 

This year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic all students 18 and under have received free and reduced breakfast and lunch. This mandate has been extended through the 2021-2022 school year by the Biden Administration. In most years, students who come from a family with an income at or below 130% of the poverty level would receive free lunch, but because of many parents losing their jobs due to the pandemic, free and reduced lunch was given to all students.

Also in response to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided guidance and suggestions for serving students outside and inside the lunch room. Most prominently, they provided ideas for the distribution of take home meals for students who are virtual learning. These ideas include: walk up or drive thru, delivery directly to their home, delivery in an accessible location, or delivery by bus. According to a US News article, only 53% of schools in the United States are fully in-person; this means there is some form of virtual learning in the remaining schools. Out of these schools: 81% offer grab and go meals by drive through, 42% offer to deliver straight to the student’s homes and 32% offer to deliver by bus route. The kitchen staff of these schools have to prepare packaged meals for these students weekly, while also continuing to follow protocols such as wearing a mask and social distancing. Additionally, some kitchen crews also have to provide in-person meals — almost doubling their workload.

Providing breakfast and lunch for 1,479 students at OHS on a daily basis is a pretty daunting task, and seeing lunch lines stretch outside of the lunch room can stress out any cook or server. This year, there is an added element with the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring safety and following new lunch room protocols has been something that the kitchen staff has had to adapt to. Principal Mr. Kory Kath said, “A lot of what has been done is the individual bagging or prepping of things so they are in sealed containers. If that is not possible, then it has to be served to you.” To meet these extra protocols, OHS lunch ladies have had to spend extra time preparing lunch and work faster during the lunch period so they can single serve lunch to every student.

Another change that has affected the classroom and lunchroom has been distance learning. What this means for the kitchen staff at OHS is providing breakfast and lunch for these students to take home every week. The students who are distance learning call the school to order their meals and then the meals are available to pick up on Tuesdays at the School Street doors. Mr. Kath said, “We want to make sure that every student for five days a week, whether in-person or virtual learning, has access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch. It’s one of our biggest purposes and missions, within our food service program.”

Each of these methods involves different menus and varying amounts of packaging. This does result in more work for kitchen team members and administrative staff however the end result of serving kids is worth all of the additional effort.”

— Sarah Brooks

The Owatonna Public Schools Nutrition Service Department has taken great pride in being able to provide meals in a variety of ways for a variety of different students. They want to ensure that students, whether in school or not, are able to eat their favorite nutritious meals. Nutrition Services Coordinator Sarah Brooks said, “Each of these methods involves different menus and varying amounts of packaging. This does result in more work for kitchen team members and administrative staff; however, the end result of serving kids is worth all of the additional effort.” This workload is definitely a tall order to fulfill, but the OHS kitchen staff has taken on the increased workload excitedly, so that all students are provided with meals.

Throughout the school year, new information about COVID-19 has been gathered by health officials. With the new information comes protocols, which can change with the drop or spike of cases. As of late, protocols are becoming more relaxed, giving everyone a sign of relief– including the lunch ladies. Ms. Brooks said, “In my opinion the continuous pivoting with short time frames to make adjustments was the most challenging part of working through COVID-19. However we understand that federal, state, and local decision makers often needed to be able to make changes in a timely manner for public and student safety.”

Through the heart of the pandemic, kitchen staffs nationwide have been working extremely hard to provide extra meals and safety for all students. Their ability to continue to do this on a daily basis has not gone unnoticed and has been tremendously appreciated. The Owatonna Public Schools Nutrition Services Department and the nutrition services around the United States have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic.