The South Burlington School District has never qualified for the Summer Food Service Program, according to Rhonda Ketner, the district’s director of nutritional services.

But this spring, when COVID-19 hit, circumstances changed.

The district was approved to operate the Summer Food Service Program, offering kids under the age of 18 free meals. This federally funded, state-administered program reimburses schools who serve free, healthy meals to kids in low-income areas.

Switching to the new program wasn’t easy.

“We had a very abrupt educational experience overnight, where all of a sudden we’re not in school and we’re trying to figure out what summer food service is how it works what it looks like,” Ketner said.

They never did find out. The program had to be adapted to avoid congregate dining. Schools had to coordinate meal pick-up sites and delivery to students who could not otherwise get their food.

Each day the school offered three different choices of pre-packed meals

With the United States Department of Agriculture’s approval, South Burlington will consider serving meals in the Summer Food Service Program model until Dec. 31 – or when funds run out.

The program has required learning new ways of doing things. Gone are the schools’ point of sale systems, in their place hours of paperwork. The district has had to rethink its menus and operate on three different service models to feed kids who are learning on-site, remotely and in after school and daycare programs.

“I really think the average person thinks, ‘you’re just cooking meals,’ and there’s so much more behind it,” Ketner said.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for everybody. I can’t say enough about our state Child Nutrition Program leaders, they have been working with us tirelessly,” she continued.

While operations differ from school to school, Ketner said that so far, several of the South Burlington schools have had students funnel through the cafeteria, in small, staggered groups, to pick up their food.

They go back to their classrooms to eat.

With 15 nutritional staff members across five schools, staff are unable to bring food to the classrooms themselves.

About 400 meals each day go out on a school bus to be delivered to students. Ketner was unsure of the exact number of students eating school meals in-house each day but said that at about 60 percent of the student population, it’s a little more than normal.

“What’s really the most gratifying of everything we do, is when the kids come through. You can just tell that they’re grateful for what we do,” Ketner said. “We know that what we do is really important. Nutrition is right up there with water and oxygen.”

CVSD dishes it up

When schools shut down in March, the Champlain Valley School District community stepped up.

About 25 volunteers quickly assembled to help the district’s food service program deliver and distribute meals to families as their kids took to remote learning.

But they weren’t the only ones. Food service staff within the district continued to come into school when everyone else turned to home.

“When the whole pandemic started, and the governor of Vermont basically said, ‘Schools and service workers you are essential workers. We need you to be working and taking care of our kids,’” recalled Scott Wagner, food services director. “My staff did not complain. They were happy to do it. It was nice to have a sense of purpose. Something to do with this unsure time.”

Like South Burlington, the district doesn’t usually run that the Summer Food Service program, because it has a “relatively low” number of people who would qualify for the meals, Wagner said. But now things were different.

The kitchens have continued dishing up free meals as students returned to school this fall. But the number of students getting school meals hasn’t changed, Wagner said.

“Our participation hasn’t gone through the roof because all the meals are eligible for free. The same kids that would normally eat meals are eating meals,” he added.

For those kids who are attending classes in school, the food services staff have set up breakfast carts for students as they head into the building.

Come lunch, the kids order meals from their classrooms, which their teachers share with the cafeteria, Wagner explained.

The meals are then delivered to the classroom, where kids stay to have their lunch.

Remote learners can get a “takeout and delivery” meal service. Families can help their kids fill out an online form ordering multiple days’ worth of meals. Then meals are available for pickup or delivery by school bus.

It’s been nice to have kids back in school even despite lessened interactions.

“They come in and they say, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ The kids are so polite. And they seem really excited to be back at school. It’s fun interacting with them even from six feet away,” Wagner said.

And everyone seems to be getting used to the masks.

“It was weird for all of us I think it’s because you’re used to seeing people’s facial expressions with their mouths, you know, if they’re happy or sad with their muscles if they’re smiling, or whatever. But now I think you can tell when you look at people’s eyes,” Wagner said.

Emily Downing Ponce has three students in the district. Her kids participated in the summer meals program which she found helpful during the pandemic.

“Everything is a little uncertain, so to have that consistency was really amazing and it was just awesome to not have to think about it and not have to worry about it,” she said.

Downing Ponce also volunteered, delivering meals to students in Hinesburg and Williston.

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