As the pandemic school closure unfolded, Bellingham Public Schools identified four primary goals that focused staff and prioritized needs. While the first stated goal was to promote safety and minimize the spread of the virus, the second goal was just as basic: to provide food to the young people of our community. (The third and fourth goals were for child care options and for supporting remote student learning.)
In fact, even before the district closed on March 16, there had already been many discussions about how to continue food service for our students if there were a closure, and if providing food, how to keep both staff and families safe and socially distant.
School meals are a vital component of the school day for many students, making up two-thirds of the food they eat in a week. In Bellingham Public Schools, 33% of our families rely on free and reduced price meals that are part of the National School Lunch Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Providing this nutrition through school meals during the school closure was crucial.
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine emphasized the importance of feeding children through school meal programs, especially during the pandemic, for short-term and long-term health reasons.
“As we grapple with COVID-19,” the NEJM article states, “it’s critical to ensure that the nutritional needs of vulnerable children are met in order to avoid exacerbating disparities in health and educational attainment for years to come.”
“We should examine in real time the strategies being used, acknowledge the broader political landscape in which they’re being implemented, and improve our ability to adapt how, when, and where we provide nutritional support to children.”
And Bellingham Public Schools has indeed adapted.
It’s hard to grasp, even for those onsite every day, how huge a lift this has been, literally and figuratively. The images of pallet upon pallet of canned and dried, shelf-stable goods (each pallet weighing over a ton) and of thousands of boxes lining Sehome High School hallways and open spaces are, to put it mildly, mind-blowing. As of May 18, more than 252,000 meals have been delivered since the school closure began and more than 28,000 boxes have been put together.
The motivational adage “be stubborn about your goals, and flexible about your methods” was shared early on by Rae Anne Thon, director of Transportation and soon became the rallying cry for the district team working out the logistics of food delivery and adapting to new procedures with each waiver received from the USDA.
If you speak with staff in food services and transportation, they will probably give a nervous laugh and tell you they are on plan #156 currently. In reality, it is probably closer to 12 different plans that were started and then changed because of new guidance.
Over the past eight weeks, each shift included many major decisions and pivots for both sourcing and staffing. Each change came based on clearances/waivers from state or federal guidance on what was possible, and district staff rose to every occasion to.ensure students and families had access to nutritious food. Click here for an album of photos highlighting the staff and the work involved. Note: some photos are pre-mask times.
The early, first model was based on a daily distribution of individual sacks including one lunch and the next day’s breakfast to each student who stopped by. That changed rather fast to a waiver that children could stay home and didn’t need to be present themselves for the pick up. A major pivot came two weeks later with a waiver granting a once-a-week delivery model with enough meals for weekdays Mondays through Fridays. This model was a welcome relief as it allowed much more physical distancing for both staff and families. It was with this model that meal box production took root at Sehome High. And finally, a few weeks after the five-day meal box plan was put in place, yet another waiver came through that allowed for feeding our kids seven days a week, and the current production of boxes with 14 meals began. View video with Superintendent Baker talking about food delivery procedures.
Currently staff are building 3,200-3,400 meal boxes weekly, coordinated by transportation director Rae Anne Thon and transportation operations supervisor Kim Remsing along with their transportation team, other district staff and local Americorps volunteers. Onsite, the basic work entails moving food items from the pallets and filling up the boxes with food and then taping the boxes shut.
Each finished box weighs 6 to 8 lbs. depending on that week’s contents. Once the more than 3,200 boxes are filled, counted and organized, trucks arrive to load it out and deliver to school and community locations. It is heavy work, but the staff remain buoyant and flexible.
Remsing sees incredible willingness of staff to shift their work as needed. “We have drivers taping up the flat boxes to put food in,” she said, “and then taping them shut later in the week for delivery.”
”They have stepped up to the plate with every phone call we have made asking for their help. They all embrace the fact that we are doing this for our students and want so much to help. They are always asking to help more if they can.”
Patrick Durgan, executive chef and director of food services, also shared his reflection about this team approach and the collaboration and focus needed across the board.
“The best thing about this whole food project has been to feel how supportive our district leadership, staff and Bellingham community have been,” he said.“Everyone is looking out for each other and taking care of each other through this whole thing and trying to do everything they can to get everyone through it.”
Likewise, Mataio Gillis believes staying focused but flexible was key. “As a team, we haven’t lost sight of the work we are here to do,” he says, “which is to improve the lives of our students and our community.”
In recent years, the BPS Central Kitchen developed their “Good Food Promise” which strived for “good food, made with love.” Of course, in the last eight weeks, we have had to pivot away from the newly developed scratch cooking menu, but in essence some things are the same.
“Our goal is to feed and nourish our students and that is what we continue to do,” says Gillis. “The model may have changed a bit, but we are still doing it from a place of love and are trying to make good choices for them.”
Another entire angle of the Sehome meal box production is the sourcing of items going into the boxes. This has also been a major undertaking with many moving parts. Durgan and Gillis both want to give our community a big thank you, and especially want to call out several local businesses.
WinCo Foods and the Grocery Outlet stores have been the food sourcing leaders and are owed debts of gratitude. The pandemic food project would have not had the same success without them. They are able to offer the district large volumes of shelf-stable products at great prices.
Additional vendors that have helped with filling the boxes are the Franz Bakery Outlet, Grace Harbor Farms for yogurt, and Avenue Bread who has been working with donated flour from Cairnspring Mills baking bread.
Other sources of support have come in as well, notably by Dewey Griffin Subaru who lent refrigerated trucks to store fresh apples, and Bellingham Cold Storage that has given us more refrigerated space at a discount. Increased refrigeration allows for the staging needed each week to fill boxes one week, while the supply chain continues right behind it for boxes the next week.
In addition, Haggen Foods has come through with a $10,000 grant funneled through the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation that will help offset the purchase of shelf-stable items and support the project wherever needed.
There is an ongoing, inside joke with the staff working on this pandemic food project that simply goes “Well, what did we do the last time?” As we all know, there has been no “last time,” no best practice to rely on, no previous pandemic to learn from. This is all new, all the time.
Reminder: the next meal box pick up will be Tuesday, May 26 due to the Memorial Day holiday. Monday distributions will continue on June 1.
The summer 2020 food program in Bellingham will remain a seven-day meal box although with an updated list of distribution sites. It will run June 22 through August. Stay tuned for more updates in coming weeks.