As restaurants reopen and re-shut across the country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, public school cafeterias have been cranking out millions of meals over the summer while figuring out the logistics of feeding students in the new academic year.

Gone are the salad bars and buffets where students mix-and-match their ideal lunch. Instead, open schools are delivering meals to classrooms, restaurant-style, while others are setting up grab-and-go lines and having students eat outside or in gyms, auditoriums and choir rooms. And schools where students are learning from home are continuing summer’s meal pickups, an increasingly important function as families struggle to make ends meet.

For schools staggering groups of students to come on alternating days, or with some students in person and some at home, delivering meals to classrooms is one of the top options. Prince William County schools in Virginia are virtual for the first quarter of the school year, but officials have started sketching out the dining plans for an anticipated 50/50 split between in-person and virtual learning. Adam Russo, director of school food and nutrition services, says the county plans to deliver hot breakfasts and lunches to students in classrooms using an online ordering system.

In Syracuse, N.Y., a similar delivery model is on the table; though teachers pushed for fully virtual learning, the system opened Monday for hybrid learning (students will be at school in the mornings, then sent home in the afternoons to learn virtually). Bernard Washington, fourth vice president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, says that even with clear eating plans, seemingly small logistical issues can throw a wrench in the delivery model. Expanding classrooms to a larger setting, for instance, required negotiating with the district.

County schools nutrition director Tina Farmer gives free meals to a parent at Clark Creek Elementary School in Acworth, Ga. Photo by Kevin D. Liles for the Washington Post

“Our director told us that us being food service workers, that’s not really our job to be delivering our food. So they asked if students could bring them to the classroom, but I had a problem with that because of the liability” of students pushing carts and carrying trays, Washington says. “There’s a lot of variables we have to go through to make everything fair.”

Preschool and elementary students will get breakfast in their classrooms, then pick up lunch in the cafeteria to be eaten in class. Middle and high school students will get a breakfast to eat in approved locations in school, and a lunch to take home at early dismissal. Students can also take meals home for the days they won’t be in school.

In the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, students started out the year entirely virtual, relying on pickup lines. Cafeteria manager Yolanda Fisher says many solutions were discussed, such as kiosk carts or restaurant-style meal delivery, though the district opened on-campus instruction Monday with the lunch line intact. However, cafeteria tables have dividers and are set up so that students can sit on only one side of the table; they cannot face one another.

Other situations – such as Prince William County high schools’ larger student bodies and rotating classes – make delivery more difficult. “We’d be leveraging our lines again and utilizing a grab-and-go service like we’ve done for breakfast every day,” Russo says.

In Cherokee County, Ga., losing the lunch line wasn’t an option. “We wanted to make sure that our students had a choice,” says nutrition director Tina Farmer. “We felt that if they were just eating in the classroom and they pre-picked their items, they really didn’t get a chance to come in to see the food and make a selection of what they really wanted for that day.”

Unfortunately for students, self-service salad bars and topping bars are out of the picture, though Farmer wants these to return post-pandemic.

Some Cherokee County students will end up eating in classrooms when they get their meals, and others will be socially distanced in the cafeteria. Weather permitting, outdoor areas will be open, too.

Russo says Prince William schools are considering letting students spread out in large areas such as gyms, auditoriums and even choir rooms while they eat.

“You’re talking about utilizing outdoor space to eat and utilizing different parts of the building that they wouldn’t have previously used otherwise,” he says. The usual 30-minute lunch remains in the plan, as Russo thinks socially distanced lines may actually move faster, especially with fewer students in the building than usual. “I suspect that students will have longer to eat,” he says.

In Cherokee County, Farmer says the usual 50-minute lunch period has been cut in half so students have room to spread out when they eat in the cafeteria in shifts, but officials have strategized how to speed up the line and reduce touch points. They’ve replaced the pin pad that students punch their account number into with a scanner to register a card with a bar code. Farmer anticipates that the switch will survive the pandemic, as it will allow kids more time to eat.

The county also wanted to retain some normalcy by keeping familiar items on the menu. Officials introduced clear packaging for fruits and vegetables so students can see what they’re selecting, and repurposed other packaging.

“Initially, we took pizza off and we took nachos off, which are two of our more popular items, because with everything that’s going on, we just could not secure a proper box or packaging for our pizza,” Farmer says. “After a week or so of that, our students, vocally teachers, staff, all kind of let us know that we needed those options for the students in the classroom. We found that our round personal pizza fit really well in our foil hamburger bag.” The nacho issue has also been solved, while helping kids make some choices: Servers ask students what toppings they want, then the servers add them, wrap them on paper food tray boats, and hand them to the students.

Cherokee County is also keeping its drive-through lines and meal pickup sites alive for digital students. Schools that are remaining entirely virtual are doing the same. Gary Petill, director of food and nutrition services at San Diego Unified School District, says officials were worried about the U.S. Agriculture Department’s summer push to limit the number of free meals. The schools operated their summer meal programs under a USDA waiver that allowed them to feed all students regardless of income eligibility.

Paid students, who wouldn’t be eligible for a free or reduced lunch and would ordinarily buy a lunch, are “a very small percentage of families who are doing well, that probably won’t come pick up meals. But we have so many more families that would come in that are struggling,” says Petill, referring to the pandemic’s devastating economic effects. The district paired with food banks and even the San Diego Humane Society to make food boxes to go alongside the free meals to feed whole families (including pets).

At first, the USDA was ready to let the waiver expire, but extended it through the end of the year after a swift backlash. If it hadn’t, Petill says the district would have figured out another way.

“We will never refuse a child, even if they’re paid students,” he says.

“Working on a daily basis with the kids, I know that for a lot of them, that’s their only meal. That made me want to come out,” says Fisher in Texas about coming back to school to work the pickup lines. “If I can help, I’m going to help.”

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