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Schools extend curbside meal deliveries

Issue Date: August 19, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Nicole Barron, director of child nutrition and food services for the Stockton Unified School District, left, and Stagg High School employee Pyongson Ortegas prepare meals for pickup during lunchtime service. The bags include individual servings of foods with enough ingredients for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Stagg High School employee Pyongson Ortegas moves meal bags back to the cafeteria after lunchtime curbside service in Stockton.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

It's nearly September, and school is back in session—but not the way most people might have hoped when the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to finish the previous academic year online.

That means changes in how school districts serve fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and other items to students who might otherwise have been eating in a school cafeteria. Many districts continue to deliver meals to families curbside.

Jana Nairn of AgLink in Ballico, which works to match producers to school districts, said she didn't foresee a continued shutdown.

"Definitely disappointing for everybody, not only in the produce industry, but of course all the parents and the kids," Nairn said. "I think everyone really thought this was temporary for the spring, and that we'd be able to get back to some kind of normalcy in the fall."

For the Stockton Unified School District in San Joaquin County, normalcy, in pre-pandemic times, meant serving 9,000 breakfasts and 23,000 lunches per day, said Nicole Barron, the district's director of child nutrition and food services. As of last week, she said, the district was serving about 5,600 students on meal-pickup days: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Similar trends are playing out elsewhere.

Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services for the Elk Grove Unified School District south of Sacramento, said she's gone from 40,000 meals per day to 12,000; in the Lodi Unified School District, the numbers have plunged from as many as 32,000 per day down to 8,000 to 10,000, said Nancy Rostomily, director of food services.

School nutrition directors said a number of factors are involved, such as families finding it tough to get away to pick up meals during working hours and a seasonal decrease in services during the summer, when students are out of school but meals remain available for those who need them.

The move to curbside pickup has led to changes at packinghouses, as well, as schools deal with the new reality.

"Farmers and packinghouses together have definitely made some transitions over the summer to accommodate the demand that they expected," Nairn said. "We are seeing some different options for individually packaged veggies, including lettuce."

Small bags of carrots, broccoli and grapes also are moving, she added.

"They're pretty common anyway, but they've definitely migrated into some additional individual packing options, just knowing the demand has changed a little bit," Nairn said.

Barron said the Stockton district uses individual servings in meal bags that contain enough ingredients for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.

"We're purchasing the individual servings," she said. "In the past, we did have salad bars in all of our schools, so with the salad bars, we would buy in bulk."

Barron also has changed how she buys milk. Instead of the half-pint cartons familiar to legions of students, she's buying half-gallon cartons to send home with their families.

"Makes it a lot easier on the parents to have those half-gallons in their refrigerator, instead of all the half-pints," she said.

Lodi Unified won't be going back to its former ways of serving food, at least for a while.

"When students return to campus, self-serve salad bars are being replaced with individually wrapped items, in an effort to reduce the touch points and make it more efficient for students that will be eating in different locations in order to social-distance during meal service," Rostomily said.

The issues for her from that shift are cost—individual packs are two to three times as expensive—and longevity, as she needs "sturdy produce that can be received, prepped and has a good shelf life—apples, oranges, carrots, celery, etc.," she noted.

One thing that hasn't changed: many districts' commitments to shopping close to home. The Elk Grove Unified School District buys about 80% of its fresh fruits and vegetables from California, with many of those coming from farms within 250 miles of Elk Grove, according to the district. Drake said she tries to serve what's in season.

"In the spring, we were able to provide locally grown strawberries and many orange varieties, like mandarins, navels, Cara Caras and blood oranges," she said. "As we transitioned to summer meals, we have been incorporating many local stone fruit varieties. And California grows many great vegetables that we have been able to include, like fresh broccoli, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, zucchini, cucumbers and romaine lettuce, to name a few that we rotate into our menu frequently."

Barron said she's doing the same in Stockton, with red bell pepper strips, peaches and grapes from the Fresno area, celery sticks from Oxnard and broccoli from Salinas showing up on the district's menu.

Nairn, of AgLink, said she also focuses on what's in season.

"We're just jumping into the fall harvest, which is apples, and grapes will be coming on pretty quickly here," she said, noting that business is off from what it was before—perhaps 50% to 60% of average.

Wendy Buckley of grower-packer Primavera in Linden said it's still a little early to see how the season will shake out.

"We've only done two weeks of business," she said. "It's just starting. Usually when things get roaring about September time, there's less tree fruit, there's less grapes, so people turn to wanting more apples."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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