School Lunch in an Online World

In the U.S. education system, education and child nutrition are closely tied. Many families and students depend on school meals to not go hungry and help meet nutritional needs. Especially in areas of high poverty with high proportions of students of color, school meals help to address inequity in food security. With the onset of the pandemic, most children were required to shift their education completely online. Because of this shift, many schools had to readjust the way they prepare and serve meals so that all students could still access this essential service. 

school building

(Baker Middle School, one of the middle schools where cooks and other kitchen staff were reassigned to prepare and distribute Grab-n-Go meals.)

In the Tacoma School District no.10, commonly known as Tacoma Public Schools (or TPS), Child Nutrition staff take on the responsibility of providing healthy meals to approximately 30,000 kids per day. As the third-largest school district in Washington State, program operators were tasked with developing effective ways to feed a large range of students. To efficiently serve meals to families across the district, kitchens in elementary and high schools were closed and the kitchen staff from these sites were reassigned to various middle schools which have bigger kitchens compared to elementary and high schools. These cooks prepared and distributed Grab-n-Go meals for families to pick up and take home so that they could still rely on schools to feed their kids. For communities farther away from middle schools, the school buses were used to distribute meals at various parks and apartment complexes.

I spoke with a handful of Child Nutrition kitchen staff at Tacoma Public Schools about their duties and experiences during the pandemic. 

Pros and Cons

This adjustment in operations had both benefits and drawbacks for school cooks. For Tricia Burleson of Roosevelt Elementary, one of the biggest drawbacks was working alongside unfamiliar staff from other schools. “I’m always looking for work that has to be done,” she said, and often takes the initiative to complete her duties due to her position as cook manager. While she and other staff shared this mindset, many of them were also cook managers from their respective schools and would often butt heads on how work should be delegated or how certain tasks should be done. 

Despite this difficulty in conflicting personalities, Tricia enjoyed the extra time provided to prepare meals and clean. Before the pandemic, she explained that her schedule often felt quite rushed. Especially in comparison to her time as a middle school cook, the elementary schedule did not provide as much time to complete her duties. With the new schedule changes, she saw this additional time as beneficial and used it to ensure her surroundings were properly sanitized. Even after the fact that custodial staff does a round of cleaning beforehand, Tricia enjoys going the extra mile to make certain the kitchen is consistently safe for everyone and gives her peace of mind. 

With students coming back for in-person instruction, Tricia is glad to go back to her old kitchen, resume working with her elementary staff members, and see the students that inspire her work. Passionate about what she does, Tricia hopes that the extra time remains a part of her schedule so that she can continue to ensure the health and well-being of her fellow staff members and students. 

In-Person Adjustments

While a large proportion of the U.S. workforce began working from home during the beginning of the pandemic, essential workers worldwide had to mask-up and continue their work in person. For Veronika Thompson of Blix Elementary, she was ecstatic to continue her work of preparing meals. “I was willing to take food to distribute on my street,” she stated if schools were closing their kitchens. After a period of not being able to work and being aware of how many families rely on school meals to feed their children, she was willing to do anything to resume working and providing food for students. Fortunately for her and many students, TPS Nutrition Services merely changed their operations instead of closing completely for the following school year. 

Stewart Middle School, another middle school in the Tacoma School District

(Stewart Middle School, another middle school in the Tacoma School District.)

Much like the dilemma that Tricia faced, Veronika’s position and experience as a cook manager at her elementary school conflicted with the cook managers from other schools put on the same team. However, taking into account that she was no longer working in her own kitchen, she knew she had to adjust herself to not clash with the cook manager of the middle school where she was assigned. In addition, many duties had to be done differently in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols.

Despite Veronika’s stress in having to adjust and learn so many new things at once, her passion for feeding kids outweighed her frustrations. “Kids being hungry is a huge problem,” she explained, and her work as a school cook combats this issue. Confident with the new safety measures now in place, she is eager to return to her school and for students to resume their in-person instruction, as her love of working with kids inspired her to become a school cook in the first place. 

Creating Community Connections

As lifestyles changed, many people were required to find new ways to nourish themselves not just with food but also emotionally and socially. Ikeyshia Weatherspoon of Bryant Montessori found ways to do all three, for both herself and for the community around her. Before the 2020-2021 school year began in September, many school cooks were without work. As Ikeyshia spent her days at home with her son, the worry of not being able to feed her students was overwhelming. “Some of these meals are the only meals they get,” she stated, and without school meals, many of these students would go hungry. To cope with this stress, she began to grow her own garden at home to take her mind off of things and have a place to meditate. In addition, she would distribute what she grew among the families in her apartment complex. She got the idea of growing a home garden from her students, who used what they had learned from the school garden to grow food at their own homes when schooling went remote. 

school lunch hours sign

(With the return of students to in-person learning, cooks once again had to adjust their routines to be able to serve meals to students at school while also still providing Grab-n-Go meals for pickup.)

When the new school year started, and Nutrition Services operations changed, Ikeyshia was tasked with distributing Grab-n-Go meals on bus routes. This change in duties opened up many new connections for her as she was finally able to meet parents of students that she served school meals to and see some of these students at pick-up sites. She was also able to meet families whose kids didn’t attend a school in the district and understand their needs. One hope that she has is that the program of supplying free meals off-campus continues after the pandemic for the sake of families whose children are not tied to public schooling and therefore child nutrition programs. 

To Ikeyshia, being a school kitchen staff isn’t just a job. She does what she does “for the love and for the kids.” Even before the pandemic, her willingness to provide for her students shone through her actions. She recounted a story of a foster student whom she grew close to. The student would often come to school with unbrushed hair, and Ikeyshia would take time out of her day to comb her hair. Eventually, she found out that the student’s foster home situation was a bit rocky and decided to obtain a foster respite care license to care for the student and prevent placement disruption. To Ikeyshia, caring for students isn’t just a part of the job; her students are her motivation and inspiration to be the best she can be. 

As her duties as a nutrition staff member are returning to the Bryant Montessori kitchen, it’s a bittersweet sentiment for Ikeyshia. Exciting as it is to see her students after all these months, it’s also hard to turn away those who ask for hugs for the sake of their safety. “Smile with your eyes and hug with your heart” is the new motto to promote socially distanced connections within the school while maintaining safe practices. It’s a difficult dilemma for both students and staff who miss the affection yet understand the importance of keeping a safe distance for the sake of everyone’s health.

thank you food services sign

(Public School Employees of Washington, a labor union dedicated to representing Education Support Professionals in Washington state’s public education system, worked together with Tacoma Nutrition Services to host a Drive-Thru Appreciation Day and hand out goody bags to Child Nutrition staff to celebrate their important work.)

While the pandemic has uprooted everyone’s sense of stability and security, it’s important to recognize those who are keeping our community grounded and nourished. School kitchen staff are essential due to their role in feeding our children and their passion for it, yet they are often overlooked. Many people automatically think of teachers as the ones who contribute to students’ success, but a deeper look into the education system shows that school cooks are also instrumental in the well-being and prosperity of students.

This year, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee chose Child Nutrition providers as the recipients of the “Extra Mile Award,” to honor their dedication toward feeding children. When schools closed statewide, Child Nutrition providers showed continuous persistence and flexibility to provide children with the meals they need to succeed. These Child Nutrition professionals deserve recognition for all that they do to ensure the nourishment and health of our children, especially in these difficult times. 

The OSPI Organizations Providing Meals Map can help families find locations serving meals to children in Washington State. Families not located in Washington State can use the USDA Meals for Kids Site Finder or contact their local school district to learn about free meal site locations in their area. 


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