As the globe’s recent pandemic has redefined adjectives like “essential,” school nutrition staff continue to fit the description. While their campuses remain closed, their kitchens’ typical morning buzz has hardly skipped a beat.

From the time school closures commenced in mid-March, cafeteria staff across Yuma County have manned their posts with a fervor, preparing and serving thousands of grab-and-go meals week by week to ensure no child is left without access to critical resources.

“We were glad about the opportunity that the state and government provided to us so we could still be able to provide meals to the kids in our community,” said Grace Pruit, student nutrition director for Yuma Union High School District. “We are very passionate about that. That’s what we do every day. We do have areas in our community that are highly impoverished and they have that need for the food. Kids come to school not only to learn but also to obtain those meals. Sometimes in their home environment they may not have a lot of food, and they get that here.”

According to Pruit, while the district is no stranger to serving meals when school isn’t in session, namely during the summer months, this undertaking is unlike anything she and her staff have ever experienced before.

“It is a big change from our normal day to day,” said Pruit. “Being outside, having the drive-thru line, even being able to serve two meals at once — normally that’s outside of regulation, but the federal government provided a flexibility to us so the kids only have to come to campus once.”

In other districts, the absence of students and the liveliness they bring to the cafeteria each day has created a palpable void, bringing kitchen staff closer together to make the best of the situation at hand.

“It’s really weird, because our days are completely different,” said Mandy Gotchie, cafeteria manager at Castle Dome Middle School. “We’re used to having lots of noise, laughter and smiling faces. Now we all have to do that for ourselves. We’re all pretty close and we joke around anyway, but I think that we’re even closer now, because we’re all stuck together and we’re not having anybody else to interact with.”

When asked whether serving meals amid the circulation of COVID-19 roused any fears or health concerns, the general consensus was that while some level of risk inevitably comes with the territory, social distancing directives and personal protective equipment (PPE), accompanied by staff taking precautions on their own time outside of work, have helped put minds at ease.

“Cafeteria workers wash their hands 400 times a day anyway, so that’s nothing new for us,” said Lorri Nienaber, cafeteria manager at C.W. McGraw Elementary School. “We all went into this knowing the risks that were involved. We weren’t forced to serve, but all of us managers made the decision: ‘Absolutely, we will work.’ It’s such a vitally important need for this community. Your passion and love for the kids and what you do just takes over, and you just do it.”

According to Nienaber, about 475 students go through the lunch line at McGraw each day; during the first few days of the grab-and-go program, Nienaber and her staff were serving 1,200 meals.

“We were asked if we wanted to close during spring break,” Nienaber said. “We were not told that we had to keep our schools open, but most of us chose to keep our schools open and we gave up our spring break just because we know the need that’s out there for our community.”

CONNECTION AMID CHALLENGES

According to Crane School District nutrition director Michael Clark, in terms of meeting needs, serving meals is only half of the equation.

“It’s also an opportunity for as many people as possible to be provided with work and the ability to earn a paycheck,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity to provide a sense of normalcy. It allows students to get out (of the house) in a safe way and wave to their teachers and aides who are volunteering at their schools on a rotating basis — it’s a way of staying connected.”

While school closures haven’t kept districts from taking care of their students in some of the most basic yet significant ways, the closures have impacted vendors’ order quantities, creating some shortages and difficulty in obtaining certain food items.

“It does prevent us from having a large variety on our menu,” Pruit said. “That is one of the challenges we have been facing regularly from week to week.”

According to Clark, although maintaining safe and acceptable food temperatures and ensuring each item is of the highest possible quality has always been cafeteria managers’ objective, this new serving method has them giving extra attention to those details.

“With the virus being the focus, we don’t want to lose track of those things that we always need to be aware of,” he said. “The challenge is not so much the volume of food, but providing that food in a completely different way than we’ve ever been used to doing.”

Another challenge staff are experiencing is maintaining the recommended 6-foot distance in kitchen spaces that weren’t exactly designed with a pandemic in mind.

“One of the main things is trying to do the social distancing,” said Gotchie. “We’re in a small area with eleven people, and we’re just trying to stay out of each other’s way. That’s been a little difficult — sometimes we’re a little closer than we’re supposed to be. We have to constantly think about that.”

But while many of these changes are less than ideal, the general consensus among nutrition staff is the experience has also introduced many new opportunities to “get creative,” to maximize the resources they have readily available, to spread love and kindness in simple ways and to be something sure and dependable for families in need of stability these days. And across Yuma County, these individuals are rising to the occasion.

“Many of us have been at our schools every day since day one,” Nienaber said. “You just do what needs to be done for the community. At the end of the day, love overrides it all.”

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