Connecticut public schools are out, but their kitchens are busier than ever
Ernie Koschmieder figures he was luckier than most of the state’s food service directors when he found out on March 13 that his school meals would switch to grab-and-go as part of COVID-19 social distancing.
Groton schools, where he’d worked for seven years, were closed that Friday, giving him an extra day to upend his food service operation by the following Monday.
“We came in over the weekend. We had to a run around to nine different schools and start grabbing perishables,” he said. “I had nine fully stocked kitchens – lettuce, tomatoes – and had to bring them back to my production facility at the high school.”
They had no masks – so they scrounged around for bandanas — and social distancing meant dispatching kitchen staff into three rooms.
But on Monday, March 16, the day after Gov. Ned Lamont closed all the schools in the state, Groton’s food service, like almost all school food services in Connecticut, began providing students with bags containing free breakfast and lunch.
“The first day it poured,” Koschmieder said. “About 60% still came. It took us maybe a week to get under control.”
At this time I would have been wrapping up summer meal planning and looking at what’s happening in the fall. I haven’t even started summer.”
A little more than two months in, Groton is now distributing meals five days a week at three sites. Breakfast and lunch Monday-Thursday; and on Fridays, three breakfasts and three lunches to get kids through the weekends. That’s nearly 2,000 meals over the first four days and 6,000 on Fridays.
The disruption is not over.
Koschmieder and his food service colleagues around the state are likely to have their systems upended again … and again … and who knows after that.
Although what they’re doing now can be extended through August, the summer food operations they normally run remain uncertain on many fronts — including if they’ll run, how they’ll run, with how many children and where. And fall could bring even more changes, including expected increases in the number of students eligible for free or reduced-cost meals.
“It is incredibly overwhelming and people in food service are planners,” said Lonnie Burt, food service director for Hartford’s public schools. “At this time I would have been wrapping up summer meal planning and looking at what’s happening in the fall. I haven’t even started summer.”
At the core of the problem is food insecurity among public school children in the state. That problem has been intensified by the COVID-19 crisis, making the school meals that so many families count on for their children’s key nutrition even more important. It layers onto an already bureaucratic national school lunch program that itself is intertwined with federal safety net programs.
School lunch, SNAP and sliding deadlines
The National School Lunch Program, in which 92% of Connecticut’s school districts participate, has a component that allows families meeting certain levels of need to get school lunches, breakfasts and sometimes dinners for their children at no or reduced cost.
Families can fill out paperwork on their own if their income meets the threshold level. Then the school determines eligibility.
I don’t want any of our children to be hungry. If a child eats, a child will learn.”
But there’s also an automatic system known as direct certification. Children of families receiving certain safety net services are automatically added to the free meal rolls. That includes foster children, certain Medicaid participants, those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the big one – those receiving SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
“That’s the cleanest way to do it,” said John Frassinelli, who runs the state Department of Education’s Bureau of School Health/Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. The Department of Social Services received nearly 34,000 SNAP applications between March 1 and May 16 – about a 10% increase over the usual number, but it’s not known how many of those applying are families with school-age children.
Direct certification also has another big benefit. If 40% of students have it, then the school becomes eligible to provide free lunches and breakfasts for all students. That’s called the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP. CEP can also be activated by averaging a select group of schools in the district or even the entire district. The calculation does not include families who apply on their own.
This is actually a critical issue right now with so many families in economic straights from the coronavirus situation. SNAP is the key.
“We did more applications in April than we did in the whole last quarter of last year,” said Robin Lamott Sparks, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, which is pushing people to apply for SNAP. Sparks said they’ve handed out some 12,000 SNAP outreach cards in school lunches in Norwalk, Stamford and Hamden with the express purpose of helping those systems get CEP status.
But there’s also a catch with CEP. More than one, actually.
The school/district qualification for CEP is only done once a year – usually April 1. Due to the pandemic, that deadline was extended to the end of June for the state Department of Education, though districts need to turn it over to the department in another week.
That’s not the only catch. Schools are reimbursed by the federal government for the free meals they provide. But there’s a formula based on the percentage of kids who actually have direct certification. The magic number is 62.5% – that’s the direct certification rate that triggers 100% reimbursement. And some school systems find it financially untenable to apply for CEP unless the percentage is well above 40%. So the more kids whose families are on SNAP, the better off financially the schools will be.
“Based on the economics, we’re anticipating that the programs that are already participating somewhere between 40 and 62.5% are going to increase their percentage,” Frassinelli said. “We also believe that those programs that are somewhere around 30% in some cases will meet the 40% and be able to participate.”
But it still has to be the right economics. In Hamden, several of its eight elementary schools had been eligible for CEP for some time but had never applied. With more SNAP applications as a result of the pandemic, the combined percentage of five schools is now 56% and the district feels CEP is now economically feasible for those schools. So Hamden is applying.
“I don’t want any of our children to be hungry,” said Jody Goeler, Hamden’s school superintendent. “If a child eats, a child will learn.”
“Every child eats,” he said. “Whatever we have to do on our end to make that work that’s what we’ll do.”
At the moment that means handing out about 9,000 meals a week at five pickup sites, with some school bus deliveries to families that don’t have transportation – a total of 70,000 meals since March 16 when all schools closed.
Millions of meals and counting
Since that date, more than 5.5 million grab-and-go breakfasts, lunches and even some suppers had been handed out statewide, as of May 21, to school kids at 458 sites across 130 school districts.
That may pale in comparison to a normal school year in which some 45 million lunches and 18 million breakfasts are served, but it’s well beyond the typical summer meals service, which includes breakfasts and lunches at about 700 sites at summer schools, camps, parks and other locations for about 37,000 kids daily. That’s about 1.7 million meals a summer.
But that grab-and-go part is just one of several logistics-stretching components for school food services.
Right now most are running as a hybrid of the school year and the summer systems. But there are major differences. Normally both systems require students to consume their meal on site; and most disaster plans, which COVID essentially is, are set up for that as well. That’s because most disasters are natural disasters in which congregate feeding, sheltering and just about everything else is standard.
“This is totally different,” Frassinelli said. “This is actually the opposite.”
The state secured waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow food to be picked up without the child present and for multiple meals to be provided at once. On May 15, those waivers were extended for a second time, now through the end of August.
About two-thirds of the districts providing meals have to feed anyone 18 years or younger from anywhere in the state who walks into one of their sites and asks for food. And that further complicates the already staggering logistics, said Hartford’s Burt.
“Everything we are doing is nothing that we were doing,” she said. Burt called the logistics “overwhelming,” including forecasting how many people would show up.
“We had trucks and drivers placed strategically around the city,” she said. If she was running low at one of the 17 distribution locations, she could move food from a location that had extra. At one site early on, her staff was literally running with food from the packaging machine at Bulkeley High School to the pickup location.
She had to retool her entire purchasing process, which was geared to large commodity sizes for on-site cooking and eating, to one that provided individual servings in bags that were being picked up three times a week by about 7,000 families.
Mondays and Wednesdays each bag has two breakfasts, two lunches and one supper. On Fridays – three breakfasts, three lunches, one supper and two snacks. That’s almost 120,000 meals a week plus 14,000 snacks.
Some of the food is still cooked on site and then frozen and sealed using equipment Hartford, unlike most districts, owns. Also, unlike many districts, Burr has plenty of freezer space. Cooking instructions in English and Spanish are included so families can serve them at home.
But a lot of food is now being purchased in single servings that can go right in the bags. That’s faster, yes – but with significantly more packaging to remove and therefore more weight. “None of us foresaw how much harder this would be,” she said. “Just physically lifting.”
“I have never worked harder,” she said, noting that she personally sewed about 100 masks when none were available. “The safety of staff is at the very top of my worry list. These people have stepped up, showed up.”
The safety of staff is at the very top of my worry list. These people have stepped up, showed up.”
The districts only get a small percentage of their food through the USDA commodity program. While they do get good prices for the rest of it, they’re still out there competing for products, and Burt and others are reporting food shortages. Shelf-stable milk for one is hard to get, so like other districts she’s taking advantage of the excess local milk in the state, distributing large, heavy sizes – quarts and half-gallons – instead of the small light containers usually found in lunchrooms.
Breakfast kits are running low. In Groton, Koschmieder’s Tyson meat contract for the fall was cancelled and he expects more cancellations. The turkey brand and applesauce cups he prefers are tough to find. Recently he’s started using up the commodity-size foods he normally purchases to package microwaveable meals. But now he’s having trouble finding those containers, so he’s switched to aluminum ones that can go in a standard oven.
Groton Utilities has been providing the bags for the food – something he’d never needed before. The local rotary club just donated 750 masks.
And now here comes summer and another possible change. Koschmieder has been told at least three local summer camps will run, so he’ll have retool again.
“More coolers; more packing with ice,” he said. “And we’ll still only have one production kitchen.”
Groton aside, whether schools will need to supply food for summer programs remains largely unknown since most cities and towns haven’t decided whether to hold them or in what form. Burt, Hartford’s director, doesn’t know how she could even handle two different systems and she assuming her grab-and-go operation will continue until the new school year.
In the meantime, state Agriculture Department Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt has been tasked by Gov. Lamont to act as something of a traffic cop to coordinate any number of food operations. That includes the school lunch program, some of the underlying safety net programs as well as local producers of all sorts.
Since re-directing a good portion of the state’s local milk supply toward school and other programs, he’s now assessing all kinds of production facilities around the state, including university kitchens and refrigerated trailers to help process and store locally produced food for schools and others.
He’s also assessing how to handle the increase in SNAP enrollment and its impact on schools and others.
“We’re looking at how does this all ratchet together,” Hurlburt said, adding that part of that process involves waiting for guidance from USDA. “USDA — it’s been more like ‘we understand that’s a concern, thank you.’ USDA is completely overwhelmed. On a number of issues there’s been a severe lag on the immediacy of the need and the solution.”
So the food service directors around the state just keep cranking out meals, trying to plan ahead while knowing that more of the kids they feed will be needing those meals more than ever.
“They are amazing,” the Department of Education’s Frassinelli said of the food service operators. “They took this program and on March 14 they stopped serving congregant meals and they started handing out meals to go on that following Monday.
“They feed kids and they’re really good at it. We’re ready. We’re ready for whatever comes next. The only thing that keeps me up at night is making sure that those folks on the front lines servings meals continue to stay healthy.”
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