LocationAlhambra , CA
The Alhambra Unified School District is in the middle of one of its toughest tests – feeding 16,600 children who are not in class and must pick up their meals, and that is nearly half a million “Grab n’ Go” meals a month now.
A core principle of the district’s mission and state-mandated COVID-19 2020-2021 plan is to address students’ nutritional needs. It is feeding them breakfast, lunch and supper five days a week – and now not only AUSD children, but all children.
Vivien Watts, executive director of the district’s Food and Nutrition Services, says at many Board of Education meetings that without addressing students’ base needs like hunger and health they will not begin to concentrate on learning.
In March, the district said more than 70 percent of its students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. On average, Watts said most meals it serves are to those who are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.
Making lemonade from lemons
Although there were no reported COVID-19 cases within the district, Alhambra closed its schools on Friday, March 13, with the announcement that campuses would be “dismissed” for two weeks needed to cobble together a new teaching model with a return after spring break when some form of virtual learning would begin.
Two days later, the district’s Food and Nutrition Services had drawn up a roadmap to transition to an “emergency feeding plan” beginning Monday, March 16. What started as a skeleton operation is now a robust food distribution program across the district.
William Fong, director of Food and Nutrition Services, said they basically had a weekend to reinvent their distribution model. At the time, district superintendent Denise Jaramillo said the transition to digital teaching and a new feeding program was “like trying to fly a plane while you build it.”
Before the pandemic, Alhambra Unified served an average of 12,010 meals a day over breakfast, lunch and supper.
Last month, AUSD averaged 20,761 meals per day, an increase of 73 percent, preparing almost 457,000 meals.
The district participates in the National School Lunch Program and the Seamless Summer Option – which basically gives it federal funds to provide meals for areas with low-income families during extended vacation periods with the goal of providing these families with meals for their children. Because of this summer program, anyone under 18 can receive free meals.
The district did not work alone in feeding Alhambra during the pandemic. It has worked with the Boys and Girls Club, Alhambra Teachers Association, Asian Youth Center, First Baptist Church of Alhambra, American Legion Post 397 and other San Gabriel Valley groups to fill in the gaps during spring and summer breaks when food insecurity quickly became a greater issue in the area.
Public schools enrolled in the summer program can feed more children with less paperwork. Only a percentage of parents will be asked for information about a child, such as school IDs, meal forms, lunch cards, for submission to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to show compliance with federal regulations.
At the beginning of this school year, the USDA did not extend the summer program, forcing families to return to paying for meals. Low-income families were to fill out eligibility forms for free or reduced-price meals. Non-AUSD children would have to find another food source.
The government reversed its position after an outcry from the educational community, including San Gabriel Valley school districts, which argued that the economic hardships and administrative roadblocks made the transition a “logistical nightmare” for parents.
The district went into overdrive on their “Grab n’ Go” model when the waiver program was reinstated through the end of the year.
How do they do it?
Alhambra Unified School District’s central kitchen has become a mass prep station. It has a warehouse for storage, a large freezer with two doors, a refrigerator and massive metal shelves for organizing the dry and canned foods.
Meal production starts in the warehouse, where central kitchen production manager Dwayne Dionne and his team receive bulk shipments, which Dionne orders a couple of weeks in advance of service. Weeks of planning menus, ordering food and processing of ingredients takes place well before the assembly of meals starts.
Fong plans the menus. He has to follow strict nutritional guidelines, like serving “five colors” of fresh produce – dark green, red-orange, yellow, starch and “others” – counting calories based on age group and more.
The menu has slightly changed for the pandemic and some of the functions of the kitchen and employees’ jobs have also changed. For example, the equipment for slicing large pizzas sits dormant, wrapped in plastic. The packaging station, however, is in constant use with district employees individually packaging frozen foods for reheating at home.
When the meals are planned, schools will place orders with Dionne, letting him know how many breakfasts, lunches and suppers they will need for each day.
Central kitchen employees prep the foods by dividing the inventory into the correct number of items for each school site.
Employees in the kitchen will individually package any foods that come in bulk, like frozen protein and produce, into trays for reheating. The repackaged food goes back into the freezers until it is portioned out to each school site.
In the mornings, warehouse employees and drivers work together to pull pallets of food to the loading docks where the drivers load specified amounts into his truck. Employees in the kitchen who have been preparing the individually wrapped items pack those into freezer carts, which are labeled for each school, and loaded into the correct truck.
Assembly of the meal kit begins when drivers drop off the food at the school sites. Site employees then parcel the meal components into the meal bags, which in turn get stored in their own refrigerators and freezers until the next meal distribution. On the meal days — Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week – frozen foods are matched with refrigerated foods in a bag, ready for pick up from noon to 1:30 p.m.
San Gabriel High School has a large section of students who take busses to school from San Gabriel and Rosemead, so the district is taking food to them at seven bus stops from noon to 1:15 p.m., though the food is usually distributed within half an hour.
AUSD is closed for the week of Thanksgiving, but it plans to continue 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.
Go to the Food and Nutrition Services site for announcements, menus and information.