Keeping children first: Food, nutrition services ensure students do not go hungry during pandemic

Arissa Mejia

Serving over 19,000 meals per week when school is not in session is a daunting task that the food and nutrition services department in BISD has handled with love, care, and consideration of all involved in the process. 

The first two days the cafeteria staff came back in March, the district offered one hot lunch to each child in a vehicle. Before the end of the first week, they modified the distribution to be one hot meal along with breakfast for the following day. By week three, the district stopped handing meals inside the car and began requiring someone to get out of each car and pick up their meals from a table located at the curb to follow social distancing guidelines and keep everyone safe. The district also had a school nurse take the temperatures of all cafeteria staff working in the kitchens, along with the volunteers working at the curb and required cafeteria staff to wear masks if they could not work 6 feet apart inside the kitchen.

Modifications were made to reduce the number of times people had to be in contact with each other and students receive three breakfast meals and three lunch meals on Monday and 2 breakfast meals and two lunch meals on.

This has only been possible with government agencies allowing modifications to normal procedures to allow for non-congregate feeding, which means the meals can be consumed off site away from the school as well as allowing the distribution of home bulk meals so the district did not have to be open every day.

“Continuing to provide meals to students during the Covid 19 closure has been helpful and appreciated by so many of our families who depend on these meals during the regular school year,” BISD director of food and nutrition services Sundy Fryrear said. “It is important for the schools to continue to provide meals to students since many of our students rely on these meals during the school year. Although the schools have closed and classes have moved to online, the need for these meals is still there among many of our students.”

Principal Lane Buban understands that many families are out of work during the pandemic and knows some are struggling to put food on the table. 

“Many of our families rely on schools to provide breakfast and lunch for their children,” Buban said. “This can be a huge expense for some of our families, and with some losing their jobs, it makes it that much more difficult to provide food at home. The district has recognized this and will continue to feed our families through this time we are away from school.”

Superintendent Christie Whitbeck recognizes BISD for providing meals for families in time of need. 

“During difficult times, basic needs are the most important,” Whitbeck said. “BISD stepped up to provide meal service immediately and worked with the Food Bank to distribute bulk food to families because when they are worried about their jobs and health, we can assist by making sure they are not hungry.”

One of the biggest challenges the district has faced has been finding packaging supplies for all of the boxed to-go meals since they are competing with schools and restaurants across the state for those items.

“Another challenge for us has been transitioning from a school cafeteria to a

meal packaging facility,” Fryrear said. “Instead of students coming to the serving line to get their tray of food, we now have to individually package each meal and take it to the curb.” 

Despite the difficulties, Fryrear also takes this as a rewarding experience knowing that she is helping families out.  

“Figuring out how to safely and efficiently feed students through a pandemic has been

challenging but also extremely rewarding knowing that we are helping families in times

of uncertainty and need,” Fryrear said. “Luckily, I have a hard-working cafeteria crew that embraces a challenge and helps me brainstorm new ideas to make it through this unprecedented time.”

The BISD cafeteria staff has been working hard to make handing out food to families possible.

“In terms of adapting to change, our cafeteria staff has done an amazing job of providing over 500 meals a day to families who come through BHS,” Buban said. “They have been here every day cooking and preparing meals as well as handing them out to families as they come in. They need to be recognized for all the hard work they’ve put in to help our families in BISD.”

Whitbeck said that she is grateful for all of Fryrear and the rest of the staff’s dedication and oversight to coordinate the various feeding locations and knows the community has benefited from their work.

“Families have expressed gratitude for the meals and appreciate the workers and volunteers who have continued to come to work to prepare and distribute,” Whitebeck said. “I believe the meals are providing comfort in a time of need.”

Heather Murphy, special programs coordinator at the Brazos Valley Food Bank, has introduced BackPack that helps out several families in need of food. 

“Providing food to families is important all year round but especially when COVID has parents out of work, or even just because their children are home a lot more than usual,” Murphy said. “School lunches and BackPack are resources many families count on every week.”

The BackPack program serves elementary aged students with weekly, nutritious, food-filled bags that equal 6 meals and two snacks. They are designed to help fill in the gap on the weekends and the evenings when school meals are not available. Currently, BackPack is in operation with 40 elementary schools across the 6-county service area, providing bags to 1,400 children per week.

“BVFB and Bryan ISD were able to work together to send out 10 weeks of BackPack to student’s who would typically receive a bag when on campus,” Murphy said. “BackPacks were handed out in bulk to students by Bryan ISD staff one time instead of weekly to help minimize contact and keep everyone as safe as possible. For Bryan ISD specifically, that was just over 6,000 bags.”

BackPack is funded solely by grants and community donations, which like many things during this time, has demonstrated how the community has pulled together to help one another.

“We would not be able to do what we do were it not for the generosity and support of our community members,” Murphy said. “BackPacks are also packed by volunteers every week at the food bank, and we couldn’t assemble that many bags per week without them, so volunteers are always appreciated.”