Roaring Fork Schools work hard to continue safely feeding students for free
Pandemic magnifies the importance of nutrition on student success
There was a hum of excitement in the air at the Sopris Elementary School cafeteria Tuesday as Donna Loomis rolled out a cart with individually packed lunches for the kindergarteners who rushed to wash their hands before sitting at the tables.
It was pizza day, one of the most popular lunches according to Loomis and kindergartner Emma Falcon, who said lunch is her favorite part of the school day.
“(Pizza day is) really, really, really good. … I don’t know (why), it’s just good,” Falcon said.
The USDA made the decision around the start of the pandemic to provide all public school students with meals at no charge for the 2020-2021 school year. This waiver is now extended until the beginning of September, so meals will be distributed to students throughout the summer, as well.
Octavio Maese, Director of Nutrition Services for the Roaring Fork School District, said this waiver also gives other youth in the community the option to receive meals from the bulk distribution sites outside of school hours.
“It’s been great,” Maese said. “It’s allowed us to provide meals at no charge to any students as well as community youth under the age of 18 who may not be enrolled in our schools. … We’ve been serving more students on average than we have previously, at least from the information I’ve been given.”
Loomis is a member of the two-person nutrition staff team at SES along with Marvalyn Pugh. Both women started working for RFSD around the same time and before the pandemic, so they’ve seen changes made within food distribution in order to maintain COVID-19 safety precautions for themselves and the students they feed.
“As far as the food, it’s a lot more intensive labor-wise, because you have to pre-package everything, all the condiments,” Loomis said “Like, if you have a hamburger, pickle, tomato, ketchup, (they) all have to go in a different thing.”
One thing COVID-19 has not had much of an effect on are the steps the two women take to make sure all the food is safe and their kitchen is regularly being disinfected. Pugh said they were already prioritizing keeping the food prep area clean even before the pandemic, and the newer guidelines only strengthened the steps they had been taking previously.
“Cleanliness has a lot to do with it, we try to keep it clean. We’re constantly trying to keep it clean, maintaining that kind of level of cleanliness,” Pugh said.
Whether or not a student receives free or reduced lunch is confidential information, Maese said. The nutrition staff also will never turn a student away, even if there isn’t sufficient funds in their account to pay for the meal.
Maese said if this situation arises, the district will reach out to the family directly, either to see if they qualify for the lunch waiver or to set up a payment plan. During COVID-19, this has not been an issue and Maese said he hopes someday to see a precedent of free meals for students.
“We definitely want there to be legislation, whether it’s state legislation or federal legislation, that moves towards providing healthy meals at no cost for all students. Because, again, as the pandemic has shown, food is a very vital part of our survival,” Maese said.
The district’s Nutrition Services team will have a total of three distribution sites of bulk meal packages over the summer. The current distribution schedule for these seven-day packs is at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays through May 28 at Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork and Basalt High Schools. Maese said that even if his staff only gives out one or two meal packs on a certain day, it is still important work and makes a difference to the community’s youth.
“We have an obligation to do our best and provide a service when we’re able to,” Maese said. …And I think we’ve done a tremendous job as a department but as well as a school district to be able to overcome the adversity that’s been placed at all of our doorsteps.”
Reporter Jessica Peterson can be reached at 970-279-3462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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