Kern County school campuses miss the daily bustle of students, but if you walk into a cafeteria, you can still feel their presence.
Early Tuesday morning, a team of 17 nutrition services workers at Bakersfield High School, among the few employees still on campus, were sorting through hundreds of cereal boxes, milk and juice bottles and buns and patties hamburger.
From Monday to Thursday, they are in charge of an important task: providing children from 2 to 18 years old with breakfast and lunch.
“It’s different. It’s kind of crazy,” said Michelle Groves, nutrition manager at BHS. “Normally you put everything on lines, and now you have to put everything in bags and we push it across campus.”
Its staff average between 700 and 750 meals a day, slightly less than when school closures began in mid-March. In the first week, 950 meals were served, followed by 800 – a lot to manage for just 17 employees.
The Kern School District as a whole serves about 18,500 students — many in elementary or middle/high schools — and 37,000 breakfasts and lunches daily, said Jennifer Davis, director of nutrition services. The number of lunches served is about the same as during a normal school year, but the number of lunches has doubled.
The Bakersfield City School District serves up to 25,000 students and 50,000 meals a day, according to Eric Sabella, director of nutrition services. The neighborhood has also seen an increase in the distribution of breakfasts.
When you’re trying to organize thousands and thousands of meals a day, staying on top of food orders is a priority. Orders must be placed two to three weeks in advance, and districts receive approximately seven to eight truckloads of product per week.
Items students receive in their lunch bags include cereal, mini cinnamon rolls, croissants, burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches. Nutrition services also provide milk, juices, fruits and vegetables.
All of this would be impossible without Davis and Sabella’s staffers, they said. There are 325 nutrition workers at KHSD, with each school site having between nine and 23 staff, depending on campus population. BCSD has approximately 270 workers and volunteers, with each site having between six and 13 employees, who take care of day-to-day tasks.
“It’s really not easy,” Sabella said. “They are dealing with physical labor which can also be emotionally and mentally draining.”
“My staff have really stepped up and come forward and are happy to see the community,” Davis said. “Sometimes our meals are the only ones (students) get. … It’s always heartwarming to see a child enjoy receiving a meal from us.”
Throughout the past month, as workers have become accustomed to this “new normal”, changes have been made to follow ever-changing social distancing guidelines. Originally, workers, wearing gloves, handed meals directly to a student or parent. Now meals are placed on a cart, tray or table to ensure at least 6 feet away and are picked up by the student or parent.
Even in the kitchens, staff members work in different areas and wear masks and gloves at all times.
Meal distribution sites, days and times have also been reduced in recent weeks. BCSD has grown from serving meals at all 44 school sites, then 33 to now 21, Sabella said. The move was a way to protect staff members from potential exposure to the coronavirus, give employees a break and close sites in areas where other nearby schools were serving meals. KHSD also ended the distribution of meals at six sites.
KHSD serves meals from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, while BCSD serves meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the same days. On Thursday, students receive two breakfasts and two lunches and receive instruction on how to properly store and reheat food.
With schools hopefully planning to bring students back to campus in the fall, Sabella doesn’t think too much change will take place when it comes to students eating together.
“When they eat lunch and breakfast, that’s their social time and they’re learning social skills,” he said. “As it must be now, I’m sure they miss their friends and teachers.”
Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.