Food service ‘heroes’ work through the pandemic in Lennox School District

KELOLAND.com Original

LENNOX, S.D. (KELO) — Nearly 14 million school lunches are served in South Dakota each year. About a 1,000 a day are served in the Lennox School District, food service manager Robbin Symens said.

Today is National School Lunch Hero Day. It’s a day designated to celebrate the people who serve those lunches and school breakfasts during the school year. Serving hundreds of meals a day requires regular planning but this year has had its own particular challenges because of COVID-19.

Cheriee Watterson, director of Child and Adult Nutrition Services for the South Dakota Department of Education, said in a news release, “For some schools this year, it was almost like adding an entire program to their meal service department as they managed meals for students in school buildings and for those learning remotely.”

“This year, there were a lot of items we couldn’t get off the truck,” Symens said.

Delivery of certain items may have been delayed by two weeks to six weeks, she said.

“We flipped menus so many times,” Symens said. “The kids were just so patient.”

The district couldn’t get the popular pancakes on a stick breakfast item for two weeks. “Kids love that for breakfast,” she said.

Beef patties were delayed. But now, Symens has beef patties in the freezer.

“We couldn’t get one kind of pizza so we had to order another,” Symens said.

Symens tried to anticipate delays while she adjusted the menus. But even if items were delayed or not available, Symens still had to meet U.S.D.A. federal requirements for nutrition and servings.

COVID-19 also means the food service lines for each groups of students were adjusted. The school needed to allow for space between students during the lunch periods.

Lennox has six serving lines in the junior high and high school for example. The first line starts at 10:40 a.m. and the last line starts at 12:45 p.m.

Students don’t grab their trays and serve themselves this year. The food serve staff serves the food on the trays and hands it to the student at the end of the line.

Lennox School District food service employees at the high school and junior high building serve a meal. From left, manager Robbin Symens, Becky Jorgensen, Abby Hummel and Susie Androzeck Carslon (holding tray). Not pictured is Stephanie Wildeboer, who works in dish washing. KELOLAND News

Symens said the food service staff decided this was the most efficient way to handle serving during the pandemic.

It’s efficient but not without some challenges.

Students and staff wear masks.

“You can’t (always) hear (speaking) through a mask. The kids order (food) and sometimes we can’t hear them,” Symens said.

Once again, the kids have been patient with the process, Symens said.

While the district has been able to get paper and plastic items such as gloves, the costs have increased.

“The cost of paper products has gone up,” Symens said. “Gloves are three times higher.”

“That’s all stuff we have to adjust to,” she said. She expects that prices will have an impact next year as well.

The School Nutrition Association said the increased costs caused by the pandemic have impacted many school districts. “Due to declining revenue and higher pandemic meal costs, 54% of school meal programs reported a financial loss in the 2019-2020 school year,” The School Nutrition Association said recently. The percentage is based on an October 2020 survey.

School districts were anticipating a food service loss for the 2020-2021 school year, the School Nutrition Association said.

When the school year ends this month, school food service staff will still be busy in Lennox.

The school district will serve free lunches for the second summer in a row.

“COVID has effected everybody and you don’t know every family’s (situation). People should have the option for (free meals),” Symens said.

The district will pack up enough lunches and breakfasts for five days for pickup on Tuesdays during the summer.

“That’s easier for parents to pick up, rather than coming every day,” Symens said.

The USDA said in a March 9 news release that one of the allowances for the summer meal program would be to allow parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children, including bulk pick-up to cover multiple days of feeding children.

The district served about 235 to 250 meals last summer. Symens expects about the same or slightly less this summer.

Just as it has all year the staff has stepped up to help make those summer meals, Symens said.

Administration at each school has also helped to clean tables in the cafeteria, Symens said.

A national “hero” day for food service is appropriate as school food service staff works hard each day to make sure students are fed, Symens said.

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