FITCHBURG – Staff in public school nutrition services increased dramatically when the COVID-19 pandemic posed many challenges for schools, especially when it came to ensuring that the nutritional needs of the over 5,000 District students were satisfied when they did not attend school in person.
Sodexo Nutrition Services chief executive David Semenza said he found several ways to address food needs and insecurity last year, including with the meal flexibility waivers given to school districts across the country that allowed school districts to serve meals outside of standard meal times.
âWe were able to innovate in a way that we normally cannot,â he said. âOur goal was to make access to nutritious meals as easy and convenient as possible for families. “
An astonishing 1,274,461 combined meals for breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner were served by FPS Nutrition Services from March 16 of last year to August 20 of this year. Aside from the daily meal pickup sites at most of the city’s public schools, meals were prepared at several community centers such as the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, and Wheat Community Cupboard, as well as several daycares. independent in and around Fitchburg.
âWe were also able to provide daily contactless home meal delivery to over 75 families who could not easily get to the pickup sites,â Semenza said, âfamilies who may have been in quarantine and were unable to leave their homes, did not have access to transportation, or were not within walking distance of pickup sites to have meals delivered.
He said âother innovationsâ they came up with during the pandemic included a weekly afternoon meal bag pickup for families unable to pick up meals during the lunch hour. Families were able to pre-order bags to pick up once a week that contained enough breakfast and lunch items for the entire week.
âThe biggest challenge we faced was making sure families knew about meal options,â said Semenza. âWe advertised a lot on social media and sent out mailing lists and senders via email as well as other district communication methods. Much of our advertising for meal services has grown through word of mouth, with people sharing information with each other from week to week.
When asked what the numbers looked like in terms of increased meal demand and meal delivery and pickup during distance learning, Semenza said those numbers are difficult to estimate.
âIt is difficult to compare the number of meals served daily before the pandemic and distance learning versus the meals served on a regular school day, however, on average, we served about the same number of combined meals each. day during the pandemic than before the pandemic. , “he said.” The meal service during the pandemic allowed us to provide meals to anyone 18 years of age or younger at no cost, unlike only enrolled students. Considering that we were serving on average the same amount of meals each day the meal request during the distance learning was there and we were able to meet it.We adapted daily to changes in demand due to weather, holidays etc.
Semenza, who was deputy director from 2005 to 2018 and director since August 2018, said he enjoys his job and helps tackle issues such as food insecurity.
âWhat I love most is the satisfaction of knowing that we are making a difference in the lives of children and adolescents,â he said. âThe sad reality is that many people are food insecure. Knowing my team and I are making a difference for families and providing convenient and nutritious meal options is very rewarding.
Semenza gives the staff in nutrition services a lot of praise for stepping up during the pandemic and helping to feed the students.
âThere are no words that can express how grateful I am for all of their hard work over the past 16 months and the debt of gratitude owed to them,â he said. âThe word hero is used quite a bit, but it absolutely describes what every nutrition services team, not only in Fitchburg, but across the country, has done since the start of the pandemic. From day one, they were there on the front lines to make sure the children had enough to eat. Day after day, especially during the first months when there was still so much unknown, they were there. As one of my staff put it when I was chatting with them on a meal site in May 2020, “We feed the kids, that’s what we do.”
Nutrition staff, whose numbers fluctuated between 44 and 49 during the pandemic, have been busy over the past few weeks planning and preparing back-to-school meals, and Semenza said they were “cautiously optimistic âThat the meal services for the school coming year will be more like a meal service before the pandemic.
“With security measures in place such as masking and distancing, students will be able to return to the queue each day for their favorite school lunches,” he said. âWhile we face staff shortages like many in the service industry, we have an incredible and dedicated team of nutrition services professionals who are preparing for a great year. However, if the past 16 months have taught us anything, we are prepared to modify our service models as needed to ensure the safest possible meal service options while ensuring that students have easy access to nutritious meals. “
Semenza said the hope is that this school year compared to the previous school year “will be night and day”.
âPeople become school canteen professionals because they like to see the smiling faces of the students when we serve them their favorite meal,â he said. âWhile we may not initially see those smiles due to the masking requirements at school, just having the students in front of us is a victory. Although they might not see it because of our mask, our staff will have the biggest smiles you will ever see. “