The last eight months have highlighted the necessary duties carried out by frontline workers in a variety of industries, such as nurses, EMTs, police officers, grocery store staff and truck drivers. Among those on the frontlines are the food service workers responsible for preparing meals for youth as they attend school either in-person or at home.

As surging coronavirus case numbers have led to most schools within Scott County switching entirely to distance learning within the last several weeks, school food service workers are once again readjusting to the changes.

Until Nov. 30, the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District followed a hybrid learning model.

“Whether or not students were learning in school in-person or they were learning from home, we were feeding them for free,” said Director of Child Nutrition for PLSAS Emily Malone.

When the lunch bell rang, students would still head for the cafeteria. The new normal became lining up six-feet apart from one another as nutrition services staff placed food on lunch trays. Assigned seating meant each student sat at the same table each day with just one other student at their table to allow for social distancing.

Those attending virtually still had access to school meals. Every Wednesday the 10 schools within the district turned into curbside pick-up sites. Children and their families drove up and were handed up to five meals bagged and prepared by staff to get them through the week.

“We were serving 2,500 meals per day to the at home learners when we were in hybrid,” Malone said.

'A gigantic shift'

Now that the 8,700 students within the district are all learning at a distance, nutrition services is preparing to change its operations once again and beginning to bundle seven-days worth of meals for all students.

During the typical academic year, schools participate in government programs such as the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast program and can receive free or reduced lunch based on their needs.

Through a short-term Free Meals for Kids waiver issued by the USDA, meals are being offered to youth under the age of 18 regardless of their enrollment for free. Schools are then reimbursed for the number of meals they provide.

The purpose of the programs is to provide healthy foods to children while also supporting American manufacturers and agriculture as school food services must purchase American-made equipment and serve foods grown domestically.

The other meal programs come with many rules and regulations about when exactly meals are served and how much can be served at a time, so switching to preparing multiple meals at once came with a learning curve, Malone said.

“It was a gigantic shift for us to go from the traditional school lunch where students came down to us, we served them, we did our dishes and then we went home to basically a production line. We just stood there and bagged food all day long,” she said. “It was interesting and in the beginning it was really tough. It took us just about every minute of everyday to bag the food.”

The pandemic affected industries throughout the nation and food supply chains weren’t untouched. At times staff noticed shortages of prepackaged fruits and vegetables and milk that were going into curbside meals, she said.

But staff found ways to make their process more efficient over the last several months. Instead of handing out prepackaged foods and heat-and-serve meals, they are once again preparing homemade meals like large batches of spaghetti to send home. With the switch to distance learning, staff is also preparing meal kits to cut down on packaging and to allow children to customize their meals more.

Keeping kids and staff safe

As for safety measures in place during the preparation of students' meals, Malone said “child nutrition professionals have been keeping kids and themselves safe forever. It's what we do.”

Staff are up to date on their food safety certifications, which also helps them handle viruses.

“We’re protecting students and ourselves from these viruses on an everyday basis so COVID, while it’s highly contagious, norovirus is also highly contagious, hepatitis is also highly contagious, so we're kind of used to it,” Malone said.

Staff are social distancing, have been wearing masks at all times since March and are following enhanced cleaning protocols.

While there haven’t been any layoffs in Nutrition Services due to COVID, staffing has still been a challenge as they must accommodate for leaves of absences, child care needs and other responsibilities. To help keep staff safe and meet staffing needs, schools within the district have been paired to limit possible exposure. If additional staff is needed at Hidden Oaks Middle School, Twin Oaks Middle School staff will fill in, she explained.

'The highlight of our week'

Being in this industry during these unprecedented times is “emotional,” Malone said.

“In the spring we were frontline workers and we were heroes. I've always considered child nutrition employees heroes, but to be called heroes and hear the governor say that we’re heroes and that we’re essential workers, it felt amazing,” she said.

But not being able to interact with the students daily has been difficult.

“We love serving kids and serving our families brings us our greatest joy, but we miss not seeing kids. Those Wednesdays when we see parents pull up with their kids in the car is the highlight of our week,” she said. “When the kids aren't there it's tough. It feels a little bit more sterile.”

Spending the majority of the work days bundling meals can feel monotonous at times without having the regular interaction with students.

“Something that might fill our buckets that maybe didn't in the past is that families need this more than ever,” Malone said.

With case numbers on the rise and more COVID restrictions put into place once again, it’s not known just when students will be able return to their classrooms and to the lunchroom.

“We're really hoping that we get to get students back into school. Hopefully, the four week pause and everybody hunkering down for a little bit will allow us to do that,” Malone said.