AACPS’ School Meals Team Remains Dedicated to Feeding Kids
When Maryland State School Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon and Governor Larry Hogan announced on Thursday, March 12, 2020, that schools were going to close for two weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents wondered what they were going to do about child care or how to entertain school-aged children at home without resorting to an overdose of screentime. Others, however, had a more pressing question: Without going to school, how will my children eat?
That question was also on the mind of Jodi Risse, MS, RD, LDN, Food and Nutrition Services Supervisor for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), who knew that many students relied on school breakfast and lunch as a primary source of food. To avoid a lapse in meal service, Risse and her team sprung into action, transitioning from operating under the regulations of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), another federal program that allows schools to provide meals when schools aren’t in session.
“We went home on a Thursday, saying we were going to offer lunch and snack. We came back on Monday and started offering three meals,” said Risse during a conversation that occurred in April 2020, when the world was just one month into the pandemic. “Numerous conversations happened that weekend with superintendents, as well as staff in the schools, wondering why we can’t offer more meals. . . . The first few weeks were really hectic. You had to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.”
The Food and Nutrition Services team was ahead of the game, having already developed the menu they planned to implement during summer 2020; however, it took a significant amount of coordination with food and equipment vendors to ensure that they had everything they needed “before we lost it to another district or institution,” Risse said in 2020. On the first day of emergency curbside feeding, AACPS served 3,385 meals; in week one, more than 10,000 meals. By mid-April, they had provided more than 570,000 meals to nearly 200,000 students in the county.
As the months—and the pandemic—went on, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees all school meal programs, gradually issued waivers to existing regulations surrounding school meals, which allowed school nutrition professionals across the country to make it easier to get food to children. One of those waivers allowed for the meals to be provided at no charge for all of America’s children through the end of the 2020–2021 school year. Another relaxed the requirement that a certain percentage of area students had to receive free or reduced-price meals in order to open an emergency feeding location, which allowed AACPS to expand distribution to nearly all of their schools in September 2020.
At the same time, however, parents wondered if they should take advantage of these free meals, a concern buoyed by the fact that some meal sites ran out of food in the early months. “It was a learning curve,” Risse noted in April 2020. However, from the beginning, she was steadfast that anyone—everyone—can pick up food from the schools, despite their income.
The meals are funded by USDA, so no one is “taking away meals” from those who need them, and school meals use local products and help sustain the local economy by creating and maintaining jobs. (Risse is proud to say that she hasn’t laid off a single member of her team.) In fact, taking advantage of the meals helps to financially support AACPS’s entire school meal program because the total number of meals served is also used in a calculation that determines how much support it gets from USDA.
By early February 2021, the number of total meals served since March 2020 surpassed 5 million, with between 9,300 and 11,600 students served per day. Over the year, Risse said, they have revised menus to ensure that student favorites, such as tacos, appear regularly, and started providing whole vegetables in the meal bags, so families could add them to their other at-home meals. Jessica Pachler, an AACPS mom, created a group on Facebook called “Cooking with School Meals” that offers discussion on how to use school meal leftovers to avoid food waste.
When AACPS implements hybrid learning on March 1, students will be served breakfast and lunch in the classroom, rather than in the cafeteria, and be provided dinner and a snack to take home. Curbside meal pick-up will continue, though the timing may have to be adjusted slightly.
When Risse reflects on spring 2020, she laughs. “Honestly, the funniest part is that when we talk about what we used to do, it’s all blurry,” she said.
“But our group never lost sight of the kids. The students were their priority from day one.”