Beset by many of the same challenges confronting area restaurants, Foxboro’s school lunch program has succeeded by nibbling away at menu options while expanding outreach to serve a community-wide clientele.
“I’ve been in [food service] over 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” food service Director Janice Watt told school board members last week. “It’s a year like no other.”
Delivering a mid-year progress report on the district food program, Watt said logistical and safety protocols adopted after last spring’s COVID-19 outbreak have presented both challenges and new opportunities.
Practically speaking, Watt said the hybrid class schedule adopted in Foxboro schools has significantly curbed the number of meals served in school, while supply chain disruptions have made it more difficult to plan menus in advance.
School Business Administrator William Yukna said the hybrid schedule has contributed to a $28,000 deficit in the school department’s food service budget, even though federal grant funding has allowed students to take lunches at no cost through June 2021.
“There’s no way they can change that,” Yukna explained. “They just don’t have the customers effectively to create a higher number.”
According to Watt, Foxboro schools had been serving roughly 1,300 lunches daily prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
In keeping with Foxboro’s hybrid class schedule, elementary students attend either morning or afternoon classes, eliminating the need for an in-school lunch break. Instead, parents may order pre-packaged breakfast or lunch items intended to be eaten at home.
Advance ordering is accomplished through new online software that can be accessed by parents of elementary students which helps coordinate delivery of bagged lunches to students in their classrooms.
“We had a rocky start with it,” Watt said of the new software. “But that’s leveled out. It seems to be working well now.”
Meanwhile, middle and high school lunches are being served in the respective cafeterias via conventional serving lines, albeit with some modifications.
“No more salad bars or open food anywhere,” Watt said. “Which is kind of sad, because we eat with our eyes and now everything’s covered, from lunch trays to pizza boxes.”
Utensils are pre-wrapped and condiments handed out by cafeteria staff, she added.
Developing menus that could be safely prepared and served has likewise been a challenge.
“Of course, it has to be something that kids like,” Watt said, adding that food service managers strive to integrate new menu options. “That’s kind of important because we want to distribute as many meals as possible.”
In addition to more traditional lunches, the school department also provides a complimentary “curbside pickup” program distributing between 375-400 meal bags — each containing three days’ worth of breakfast and lunch items — each week to food-challenged local families.
The original intent, Watt explained, was to cover the three days each week that middle and high school students would not have access to school lunches under the district’s hybrid learning plan.
“It’s not a program just for needy families,” she said. “And you’re not taking away food from someone who needs it more.”
Bags typically contain fruits, vegetables, milk and other perishables, as well as entrees prepared at school cafeterias, and are available to local families with children age 21 and under still living at home.
“Many have said to me, ‘You have no idea how much this is helping us’,” Watt related. “That really warms my heart.”
Pick-up bags also are available for students whose families have opted for all-remote learning, as well as those with out-of-district placements, with home delivery available to families with transportation issues.
Needless to say, the planning and logistics required to serve conventional in-school lunches, bagged meals for at-home consumption and curbside food distribution are formidable. But Watt said such challenges have a silver lining with special needs students enrolled in the PAVE program at Foxboro High School being enlisted to pack bags.
“When our numbers started ramping up, they came to our rescue,” she said. “I’m so glad we have that partnership.”
Watt likewise thanked food service personnel for their cooperation and support.
“They continue to amaze me,” she said. “They have been so adaptable, changing on a dime like everyone else, but no complaints.”
“It’s so much to coordinate,” Watt added. “But everyone comes together from all over the district to get it done.”
Marveling at Watt’s ability to innovate on the fly, Superintendent Amy Berdos said the school lunch program has adapted to emerging needs in new and creative ways.
“Janice has done a phenomenal job,” Berdos said, while praising all food service personnel for maintaining a semblance of normalcy under changing circumstances.
School board member Tina Belanger likewise said reaction on social media to the school lunch program has been uniformly positive.
“It really has been a game changer for a lot of families in town,” Belanger observed, characterizing the effort as “a shining star in a really tough year.”
In two related matters, Watt announced that Jane Rice, cook/manager at the Taylor Elementary School, has been named “manager of the year” for the northeast region by the School Nutrition Association, a national organization representing more than 55,000 food service workers.
She also announced the pending retirement of Judi Dahlgren, long-time assistant cook at the Ahern Middle School.
“She started in 1984 and served her last lunch today,” Watt said of Dahlgren, adding that virtual celebrations are planned for both milestones.
“There have been just so many silver linings about COVID,” she concluded. “It’s really been tremendously rewarding to help our community in such a significant way. I love Foxboro — I love it even more now.”