Plumas Unified School District’s Food Service Program Manager Amber Russell is no stranger to handling the unexpected. Typically, PUSD’s food service department is responsible for turning out hundreds of balanced meals to over 1,800 students. On any given day, things may not go as planned, such as a delivery gone missing, or equipment not working right, or a school site being short-staffed, necessitating an instant menu change or a technical workaround. During such times, Russell brings calm, creative, results-oriented solutions to the table, whether that’s tracking down a shipment, calling in maintenance, or rolling up her sleeves and serving meals in the cafeteria.
Her ability to quickly adapt to evolving circumstances proved invaluable in mid-March, when the COVID 19 pandemic caused the shutdown of school sites across California. Under normal circumstances, the district’s students have access to free breakfast and lunch daily during the school week, a program many children have come to rely on. The question wasn’t if, but how, PUSD would continue to provide this vital service to families across the district during the shutdown.
“We immediately started looking at modifying our procedures,” says Russell. “The day after the governor’s stay-at-home order came out (March 19), we were
providing meals for pick up at sites, and we rolled out our delivery service on the following Tuesday,” she continues. “For the week of May 4 to May 8 alone, we’ve served over 6,500 meals throughout the county. We’re really proud of being able to provide this essential service to so many families during this crisis.”
Deputy Superintendent Lisa Cavin worked together with Russell and Transportation manager Kyle Bakker to hash out the logistics of delivering food to each community. “We knew that being able to deliver meals would reach more families than just the site pick-up option, so we worked on figuring out which route the school buses could take that would reach most kids, rather than following the normal school bus route,” says Russell. Portola, Quincy, and Greenville communities each have two delivery routes, and Chester has one. The deliveries take about two hours, with a bus driver and a food service staff member on board.
Schools are able to provide meals to children during the COVID 19 school closures as part of the Seamless Summer Meals Option, a program designed to ensure that students continue to have access to nutritious food even when school sites are closed, as in summer break. Because PUSD already is already enrolled in the program serving meals to children every summer, the funding was available without any further application process.
With funding and delivery details addressed, Russell and the rest of the team turned to planning what would actually be served. “In the first weeks of the shutdown, there were distribution problems. We had milk shortages and trouble getting fresh vegetables like carrots, celery, and cucumbers, all of which would be ideal for sack lunches,” says Russell. “Fortunately, we’d had a large shipment of shelf-stable foods come in just at the beginning of the shutdown, so we were able to offer things like fruit cups in the lunches,” she says.
Another consideration is the existing inventory of food in stock at the warehouse and at each school site. “For the most part we are providing cold meals,” says Russell, “but we do have some items that require heating. We label all of the meals being disbursed with instructions for heating and proper storage to help ensure safe food handling.”
How can foods meant to be served hot, like pork roasts, hamburgers, egg rolls, and chicken tenders, be reimagined as cold meals? “Our cafeteria staff has been coming up with things like pulled pork sandwiches, made with cooked, shredded pork roasts, chicken tender wraps with lettuce and ranch dressing, or southwest wraps containing beans, corn, and tomatoes. Delicious and nutritious meals that use what we already have,” says Russell with a smile. “‘It’s win-win!”
Packaging the meals to go out was an additional pinch point. “Normally, we have paper bags and to-go supplies on hand at each site for field trips, but not enough for 500 meals a day, five days a week,” she explains. “And because our distribution chains were all mixed up, items we were expecting suddenly weren’t available or weren’t being delivered on time.” Additionally, the stay-at-home order meant no one could travel out of the county to stock up on supplies. To solve this issue, Russell had her on-site staff in the different communities of Plumas County go out to their local stores to purchase any paper or plastic packaging materials they could find.
In addition to procuring the packaging, assembling the meals takes a great deal of time. Food service staff at each site mass-produces the hundreds of meals going out daily. Each sack meal needs to be filled identically, and then checked and labeled with contents, a process that takes multiple staff members and several hours. Russell says, “Without the help of additional aides in some of the communities, our current food service staff would not be able to get it all done. We are grateful for their help in the kitchens, and the support from transportation.”
Although the PUSD school year ended May 29, meals will continue to be provided under the same pick-up and delivery schedule from June – June 12, and from June 15th – Aug. 21 on a modified schedule. Information about the modified schedule will be sent out the week of June 8.
Although every day since the shutdown started has brought more questions and few answers about what the next school year will look like, Russell is confident that she and her team will be able to navigate the uncertainties and be able to keep providing meals. “Our whole system, from the suppliers, to the California Department of Education, to the School Nutrition Association, has been working together to keep everyone informed through webinars and online meetings. This has been a great resource for all of us in the school nutrition world.” She adds, “The one thing we do know is we will need to develop multiple scenarios, and be ready for any of them.”