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Alhambra Unified is Revolutionizing Food Distribution

  • Executive director of Food and Nutrition Services Vivien Watts sets up for curbside pickup at Marguerita Elementary. Photo by Helen Arase

  • Meal kits are prepared at San Gabriel High School. Photo by Helen Arase

  • San Gabriel High School's freezer before the bus stop and curbside distribution. Photo by Helen Arase

  • Meal kits are prepared at San Gabriel High School. Photo by Helen Arase

  • AUSD's bus stop meal service buses. Photo by Helen Arase

  • AUSD's bus stop meal service buses are packed by the drivers and nutrition staff. Photo by Helen Arase

  • AUSD's bus stop meal service buses have enough food to go to one stop. Photo by Helen Arase

  • AUSD's bus stop meal service buses are packed by the drivers and nutrition staff. Photo by Helen Arase

  • SGHS cafeteria manager Roxanne Venegas serves meals at the high school's curbside. Photo by Helen Arase

  • Marguerita Elementary meal services staff has signs with questions and directions for parents. Photo by Helen Arase


Alhambra , CA

When students came to class five days a week, feeding them was straightforward for the Alhambra Unified School District. With all of its students forced into a virtual learning environment, mostly at home, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the district needed to develop a new food distribution system – and it wasn’t easy.

The newest model resembles a battle plan – logistics and organization carefully mapped out – but if that careful planning collapses, and it can, the district has an overarching end goal of getting the food to the students however it can.

The new “Grab ‘n Go” curbside pickup and bus stop meal service is a radical change for a district used to feeding students on its own school sites. Now, it is distributing take-home meals to any child under the age of 18, regardless of enrollment in district schools.

Changing the logistics of its operations, Alhambra Unified has turned its central kitchen and warehouse into a major preparation and packaging plant. This is where all meal preparation, wrapping, counting and wholesale distribution happen.

When the food is portioned out for each school, three drivers will deliver each school’s ration to its proper location.

After food is delivered to each site, individual meal kits are then assembled. Each kit contains multiple meals because the district provides breakfast, lunch and supper for Monday through Friday, but pick-up is every other day. Each kit has enough food for the child until the next pick-up.

These kits have all kinds of comforting foods – burritos, chicken and waffles, burgers. The district also has contracts with Pick Up Stix and Pizza Hut for two lunch days each per month in alternating months. The district says these special lunch days are some of the most popular meals.

Nutritional guidelines ensure the children will also receive fruit, vegetables, milk and other items to round out diets approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for high school and elementary school students.

The assembled meal kits will go to curbside pickup, unless at San Gabriel High School.

San Gabriel High is a special operation because some of the kits will end up on school buses. A joint venture by the district’s transportation and nutrition services departments is bringing meals to seven intersections along the district’s normal bus route. About 400 students normally take buses long distances from South San Gabriel or Rosemead to San Gabriel High, and picking up meals at school sites would likely be hard for them.

When the buses pull up to the San Gabriel High kitchen, staff members are assigned buses to load with the meal kits and bottles of milk, and hundreds of meals are loaded in a short time.

Each bus driver has a different way to pack the meals on their buses and a rationale for doing it that way. Some drivers use the seats, some the aisle and some drivers play a precise game of Jenga at the rear of the bus.

Each driver is paired with a nutrition services staffer. The drivers cheerfully welcome the food service staff – maybe a force of habit from shuffling kids onto buses – and they are off. The team goes to the location, sets up outside the bus and is usually cleaned out within half an hour or 45 minutes.

Transportation manager Tara Baldridge said the department worked with nutrition services to calculate how many “Grab ‘n Go” lunches should be on each bus, starting with how many students were at each stop. Now the distribution has grown to more than just the students who were originally on the buses.

Roxanne Venegas, the cafeteria manager at San Gabriel High School, is involved in every step, jumping in where there is an opening or directing staff with questions.

After the bus stop meals are shipped off, Venegas and her staff prepare the carts to be rolled out to Ramona Street where there is a pop-up tent for curbside distribution.

At curbside stops, parents pull up and motion the number of meal kits they need. They then open their trunk for a no-contact delivery. Some of the sites are extremely busy and use signs for the parents and tickers to count the number served.

The teams are well-synced. A number will be called out from a parent’s sign, a staffer will repeat the number to acknowledge hearing it and a couple more staffers will grab bags and bottles of milk. There are also parents who walk up to get their children’s meals.

The process looks a bit chaotic, but it works.

The blueprint for what Vivien Watts, the executive director of food and nutrition services, calls the “school meal revolution” is as precise as it needs to be, where it needs to be. At the same time, it is indefinite enough to manage the daily fluidity that comes with feeding an unknown number of children with a limited budget during a pandemic.

Meal distribution across all 16 school sites and seven bus stops is Monday, Wednesday and Friday at noon.

The seven intersections in South San Gabriel and Rosemead are:

  • Del Mar Ave/Graves Ave
  • Del Mar Ave/Garvey Ave
  • Del Mar Ave/Hershey St
  • San Gabriel Blvd/Keim St
  • San Gabriel Blvd/Garvey Ave
  • Walnut Grove Ave/Klingerman St
  • Muscatel Ave/Garvey Ave

Although the district is closed for the week of Thanksgiving, it is still distributing food for the week. All five days’ breakfast, lunch and supper can be picked up at curbside from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20.

Under Agriculture Department rules, the district needs to collect some information on the children they serve. If asked for information, a school lunch card or online meal form are easy records to provide. The child does not have to be an AUSD student.