Cafeteria Staff Play Critical Role Fighting Hunger

Cafeteria Staff Play Critical Role Fighting Hunger
Posted on 03/31/2020
BHS Staff Plan Emergency Feeding, March 2020

You know that dramatic moment when a coach tosses out the playbook and frantically draws up a new play. A drastic change in circumstances creates a whole new challenge, and a bold new tactic is just what the team needs to pull out a win.


That “big play” moment arrived recently when Governor Roy Cooper ordered North Carolina public schools to close, in order to help slow the spread of coronavirus infection across our state. What began as a two-week closure was later extended through May 15. 


In this story, we celebrate the efforts of School Nutrition Services in Transylvania County Schools to refocus their enterprise and rewrite their playbook over a hectic three days, to meet an unprecedented need for the community’s children. 


Later articles will follow the district's transportation team, instructional staff, administration, and students and families, to explore how everyone has risen to meet this once-in-a lifetime challenge together. 


The governor announced his order on a Saturday afternoon. Students, staff, and families were in the middle of their weekend, when everyone learned that schools would close for the next two weeks starting Monday, March 16. 


Immediately, the school system family started working out ways to reconfigure time away from school into a mode of being “alone together,” to ensure continuity of learning, and so much more. 


Over 50 percent of the school system’s children qualify for free-or-reduced lunch. This keeps the fight against food insecurity nestled among the top priorities at every school, especially for the youngest and most vulnerable.


By Wednesday, March 18, a fully-mobilized team uniting together cafeteria, transportation, and instructional staff was at the ready. The team produced and distributed 1,870 meals via delivery or pickup that morning, and has delivered over 10,000 meals so far.

Cafeteria staff confer about emergency feeding plans at Brevard High School


Along with numerous TCS staff members, Barton said she is very pleased. She noted that families are also expressing sincere and heartfelt appreciation, as well as a genuine need for food services provided during an uncertain time. 


“I am especially proud of our cafeteria staff,” said Barton, “They have shifted all our resources and normal work routines to serve others in a whole new way, while also taking care of their own families’ needs. Their devotion to the children of our community is commendable, and I admire what they’ve accomplished.”


Based on area eligibility standards recognized by USDA Child Feeding Programs, Transylvania County Schools school nutrition staff have a long track record of providing summer meals for all children 18 years old and under. 


As school days transition to summer, Barton and her staff shift from daily school lunch to serving meals from the bus and at venues around the community. Additionally, they facilitate supplemental food delivery from food banks to hundreds of homes each week. 


This current effort eclipses anything schools have previously undertaken. On an average summer day, cafeteria staff serve 350 to 400 meals around the county.


“On a very busy day,” Barton explained, “we might serve up to 500 meals, many from a hot bar. By contrast, we are currently serving over 1,000, up to 1,350 meals a day — individually packaged and distributed at 31 sites, including four curbside pick-up locations.”


Lunch with breakfast for the next day is available 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. each weekday (except Spring Break) at Brevard High, Brevard Middle, Rosman Middle, and T.C. Henderson. 


Surrounded by bags for breakfast, cafeteria staff take a well-earned moment to celebrate at Rosman High School

The number of bus routes recently increased to seven, at the same time meal delivery to homes was discontinued. This shift in focus increased safety for staff and recipients, and has opened up service to all corners of the county during lunch hours. 


Expanded pick-up and bus route schedules began on March 26. See the district website for details: www.tcsnc.org/meals.


According to Barton, continuous improvement is helping cafeteria staff provide the best service possible, as she and her managers make adjustments for potential staffing shortages while adhering to applicable local, state, and federal mandates. 


“This coordinated effort goes above and beyond what we have ever done before. Our operating parameters are changing frequently, and we will continue to adapt as necessary. This is truly a labor of love from our devoted staff to meet the needs of our community.”


Transforming from the usual pattern to a delivery system is an ongoing challenge, and staff constantly employ new techniques. The district’s transportation team provides critical support to help school nutrition meet the needs of the community.


“Preparing, packaging, and transporting food in individual packages is a huge logistical challenge over serving the lunch line,” Barton added. “My cafeteria staff and I are constantly working to keep pace with ever-changing supply chain issues and varying levels of need in the community. We have purchased a large number of rolling coolers, along with vast supplies of paper bags, masks, and gloves, as part of our transformation.”


Staging quantities of food is another familiar process for School Nutrition. Tripling production while also changing delivery methods, however, brings a new level of challenge in a tight timeframe. For instance, lunch meats are bought in bulk and frozen, to be thawed later and cut in time for meal preparation.


“We work with thousands of pounds of meat at a time in storage,” said Barton. “Two or three days of food preparation in the kitchen is actually the result of two to three weeks’ lead time for planning and logistics. We’ve had to pivot within a very short time to an entirely different service model.”


Like any area restaurant recently required to shift to curbside service, cafeteria staff are going through a process of retooling and retraining. With a couple weeks at this new level, Barton and team are looking ahead to more improvements coming.


“We were excited to offer free ice cream at drive-through sites last Friday,” she said. “Hot lunches are coming as well. We began with hot dogs and pizza sticks, because everyone eventually gets tired of sandwiches and needs a change. We want to offer variety, and favorites coming out will include chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and pizza.”

Fresh fruit, hot lunches on the menu at Brevard Middle, one of four "grab-and-go" sites in Transylvania County Schools


Barton asked residents to consider donating to Change The World Relief Org. to support and extend Backpack Buddies, which addresses unmet needs. “For example, we were recently able to add funds used to purchase food and special needs during this time, including over-the-counter medicines for students in need.”


Fruits, vegetables, dry goods, and other foodstuffs are delivered weekly through the program, with multiple packs provided over breaks such as Easter, summer months, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Food packs from the Backpack Buddies Program serve approximately 200 to 300 students year round, including multiple packs over holiday periods. 


Even with this surge in capacity and help from MANNA and other large food banks, some families still experience a gap in food security.


“Some donors have generously covered unmet needs, and listing them would risk leaving someone unmentioned,” said Barton. “We don’t know what the coming months may entail for families in our community, so support for our ongoing local Backpack Buddies program will be important. We also continue to seek additional coolers with wheels and long handles, to help meet the growing capacity of our children’s meals program.”


In under two weeks, delivery and pickup sites provided over 10,000 meals to Transylvania County children. Barton mentioned that along with the favorites ready to roll out, a donor might consider making ice cream available one Friday with their support. 


“Smiles, hope, and moments of happiness are so important to children at a time like this. Children don’t fully understand what is happening around them, and they are as anxious and unsettled as the adults.


“Food is a basic necessity, but we all know it can be a tremendous comfort," said Barton. "Offered under the right circumstances, it can be a wonderful expression of love and compassion from one person to another. If you are led to give for any of these programs, please give us a call.” 


Donations for Backpack Buddies can be made to Change The World Relief Organization, a non-profit 501(c)(3), and complete program details are online: www.tcsnc.org/backpack.


Contact School Nutrition Services at (828) 884-6173. and visit the new School Nutrition Services page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TCSSchoolNutrition


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BHS: Staff plan for the next day's meals in the Brevard High School cafeteria, as capacity has tripled to meet emergency needs. These masks have been handmade by staff, while others were sent to support local health care professionals.

RHS: Surrounded by bags for tomorrow's breakfast, staff at Rosman High School take a well-earned moment to celebrate. Along with food deliveries, boxes of donated toys in the back will make their way by bus to local families.

BMS: Fresh fruit and hot lunches are on the menu every weekday at Brevard Middle, one of four "grab-and-go" sites in addition to bus routes around the county.
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