RFSD News column: School meals — Beyond the cafeteria during COVID-19 | PostIndependent.com

RFSD News column: School meals — Beyond the cafeteria during COVID-19

Octavio Maese

Spring Break meal distribution note

During Spring break, Roaring Fork School District meal distribution will only take place on Wednesday, March 24 at Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork and Basalt high schools, starting at 4:30 p.m. until they run out. There will be no Friday distribution this week.

The Roaring Fork Schools have faced challenges on almost every front throughout the pandemic, and ensuring our students had healthy meals — regardless of where or how they were learning — was no exception.

Despite the pandemic, the Roaring Fork Schools nutrition services department has had many successes around meeting the nutritional needs of students, and that’s something to celebrate.

One way to measure that success is simply by the number of meals we’ve served. The Roaring Fork Schools served nearly 500,000 meals to students learning in-person and remotely over the past year. During a normal year, the district serves around 360,000 meals. A part of this increase resulted from the U.S Department of Agriculture issuing regulatory waivers that allowed schools to serve all students free meals. Earlier this month, the free school meal waiver was extended through Sept. 30.

Offering free meals for all children has helped boost participation in many schools and allowed in-person learners to try meals that they may not have previously selected because of cost.

Another success has been our team’s flexibility and adaptability in meeting our students’ needs. When the pandemic first struck and our schools closed to in-person learning, we launched emergency operations where we distributed bagged meals from buses in school parking lots and even distributed meals at bus stops in all of our communities. During this most uncertain time, our staff worked tirelessly to prepare, package and distribute meals in partnership with the district’s transportation department.

Additionally, our team collaborated with the family services department to deliver meals to families at home if they couldn’t otherwise access meals. These heroic efforts ensured that students were nourished when many families were experiencing unemployment, food insecurity and increased stress from balancing work and remote learning schedules.

Just as the pandemic continued, we remained steadfast serving school meals throughout the summer. While many of our staff normally enjoy a summer break, this dedicated crew kept providing school meals so that we would not have students going hungry. Over the summer months, families could pick up bagged meals at designated bus stop sites.

When the Roaring Fork Schools resumed in-person learning this fall, our team once again shifted serving models to provide grab-and-go style meals for in-person learners and biweekly curbside pick-up for those choosing to continue in distance learning. As with everything in the pandemic, we have had to adjust and learn. At times, we’ve had to serve bagged meals instead of hot meals because that’s what it took. It hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve continued to provide meals no matter what.

Just like last year, we will keep providing meals over spring break and through this summer with bulk meal distribution. If the needs of our families change, we’ll continue to adapt to make sure our students have access to healthy meals.

I’m grateful to have joined an incredible team at the beginning of the school year. The nutrition services staff are pandemic heroes. They have provided access to healthy food and made a critical difference for so many of our families. Now more than ever, our students rely on school meals. And my team has shown up. They have kept health and safety at the forefront, and as a result, the department has only experienced one positive case during the school year.

The school meal program has successfully endured the pandemic through strong inter-departmental partnerships. From transportation and custodial staff to family services and school personnel, the support needed to have meal service align for students is all inclusive. Fostering a culture where we all appreciate and promote the value of school meals will support the sustainability of the program in the long-term.

Another factor that helps sustain the program is federal funding, which is impacted by the number of families who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Although the federal waiver has made school meals free for all regardless of eligibility through the end of September, we still encourage families to submit a FRL application every year.

In addition to providing students with free or reduced-cost meals during normal times, families that qualify are given access to other reduced-cost benefits for summer programming, athletics, and more. And the number of families that apply and qualify for free and reduced meals affects the Roaring Fork Schools’ funding for providing nutrition services, even if those students choose not to participate in the school meals program. You can learn more about the program and access an application on our website at http://www.rfschools.com or by calling 970-384-6004.

While the pandemic has increased need, the benefits of school meals extend beyond eliminating food insecurity. Studies show that school meals play a key role in supporting overall student health and obesity prevention, thanks to federal nutrition standards that limit calories, sodium content, and unhealthy fats.

Research also shows that healthy nutrition at school increases academic engagement, positive behaviors, and student wellness. Even after the pandemic is over, the nutrition services team will continue to serve school meals so that our students are fueled up to succeed in school and in life.

Octavio Maese is Director of Nutrition Services for the Roaring Fork School District Re-1.

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