Whether classes are being held in a virtual or traditional setting, Oklahoma City Public Schools Nutrition Services is trying to ensure that every child in the district has the opportunity to learn on a full stomach.
The number of students participating in OKCPS’ program for curbside meals varies by school site, however the district’s director of school nutrition services said the district has an average participation rate of 58 percent.
“We have a great staff that are dedicated to feeding kids, it just looks a whole lot different than it does during a normal school day,” Shonia Hall said. “We know our students still need to be fed, students can’t learn on empty tummies, and school meals are nutritious, balanced and healthy.”
When schools shut down in the spring owing to COVID-19, Hall said she and her staff got to work figuring out the logistics of continuing to provide their students with the meals they’ve come to expect from school.
“Back in March, the pandemic hit and we knew as a district and as school nutrition professionals that we still needed to feed our kids,” Hall said. “During spring break time, we devised a plan for what that would look like and started with all our elementary sites and some park locations across the district.”
Nutrition services provided meals at 49 sites around the district all summer long, with the exception of a two-week break in August for staff to complete school nutrition training and prepare for the resumption of school.
Even with most classes still occurring remotely this fall, OKCPS is currently providing meals at all 62 OKCPS sites on a drive-thru/curbside basis from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“It was certainly different going from inside feeding to a curbside location and making that a successful program,” Hall said.
At the beginning, Hall’s team was providing cold meal options, which would include yogurt, cheese sticks and juice or milk for breakfast and a sandwich or wrap for lunch.
“As we analyzed and we kind of got better and we moved forward, we also learned how to incorporate hot meals — some of our students favorite things — like chicken nuggets and pizza,” she said.
All of OKCPS’ meals meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s required nutritional analysis by providing fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, a meat product and milk. With additional funding in the form of waivers from the USDA, OKCPS was able to start including dinner and a snack as a part of their distributed meals.
“It takes off some of the burden of families who are helping with virtual (education),” Hall said. “They can run up to the school, grab those meals, and they’re ready for their students.”
‘It’s about feeding kids regardless of what school you go to’
OKCPS Nutrition Services has depended on waivers and grants from the USDA as well as community partners to supplement their meal program.
“We did apply for No Kid Hungry grants, and we had previously received some of those grants. They released some of those funds so we could spend them during this time,” Hall said. “You can think about the cost of feeding kiddos curbside. Typically, school nutrition doesn’t put meals in to-go containers, so it’s nice to be able to use those funds for increased paper cost expenditures that weren’t expected.”
There has also been an extension of flexibilities with the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option through June 2021 that allows meals to be served to children at more than 90,000 locations around the country at no cost.
“Our district made the decision that you can pick up your meals for your students at any (of our) 62 locations no matter what OKCPS school you attend,” Hall said. “With the USDA waiver, we’re also able to feed younger siblings, any children 18 and under.”
Hall said that throughout the week there are caregivers watching children who may attend different school districts throughout the metro and that the ease of being able to pick up meals from any school site, regardless of what school the child attends, has been a benefit of these grants.
“At the end of the day, it’s about feeding kids regardless of what school you go to. Hunger doesn’t change just because you go to a different district,” Hall said.
‘We’re the biggest restaurant in Oklahoma’
The line for curbside meals at Capitol Hill High School is busy in the mornings with caregivers pulling up to the pickup tent to tell cafeteria staff the number of meals they need for the day. The meals are delivered to the caregiver’s car in just a few minutes.
Hall said she and her staff are always looking for adjustments they can make for the process to be more efficient.
“School nutrition is generally done in a cafeteria setting, so our ladies have learned to adapt to that and move equipment,” Hall said. “We learned as we went about what made the service work. I think we’re always in a state of quality improvement. How can we make this better? How do we continue to provide safe and nutritious meals to our students? Can we try something new? We’re always trying to be innovative and creative to keep our kiddos fed and to keep them coming back.”
Keeping the cafeteria running is a fast-paced job, and staff members stay busy prepping, packing and keeping meals temperature controlled. Capitol Hill High School kitchen manager Glenda Ortiz said working in a restaurant has been her dream since she was younger and that getting to keep kids fed in school is her priority.
“We are so happy to have these programs available, and we’re happy to feed the kids. We try to be very organized with what we’re doing,” Ortiz said. “My team is the best in Oklahoma.”
On National School Lunch Hero Day in March, OKCPS school nutrition staff were showered with gratitude by families and the district. Hall said her team frequently hears how much families appreciate the meal service during these times.
Macy Screechowl has a fourth grader who attends Heronville Elementary School, and she also watches her niece and nephew, who attend Lee Elementary School. She picks up meals from Capitol Hill High School and said she appreciates the convenience of being able to grab food for all of the kids under her care at one location.
“It helps a lot,” Screechowl said. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Hall said it’s been a blessing to be able to serve families during these times.
“School nutrition hasn’t stopped. It’s been here since March feeding our families,” Hall said. “We’re the biggest restaurant in Oklahoma.”