The recipe for keeping hundreds of Great Bend USD 428 students fed each day includes a lot more than just what goes into the food. It also takes heaping helpings of love, passion and hard work from a staff dedicated to seeing Great Bend’s future generation has healthy food on their plates each school day.
USD 428 Food Service Director Kristy Alvord, beginning her third year in the position, relies on what she describes as caring, hard-working staff she estimates at 36 people to make sure students are getting the food they need.
Alvord said it’s not, “just the grumpy old lady with a hairnet dropping food on their plate. (They) work so hard for the kids to make sure they have the best quality food, and they genuinely care.”
Despite all the work that goes into it, Alvord said she finds joy in it, as well, because of the joy it brings to others.
“Food makes people happy. And I see these kids’ faces when I’m in the kitchen, seeing them smile ... that’s why I do it,” she said.
A day in the kitchen
The day at the USD 428 Central Kitchen dawns well before the sun.
The lights, and ovens, come on around 5:45 a.m. each day, because breakfast has to be cooked and prepared by 6:30 a.m., so it can be delivered to each of five elementary schools, the middle school and the high school, all by 7:20 a.m. when breakfast is served at those locations.
One thing people may not realize, Alvord said, is that all the food preparation is done at the Central Kitchen and transported to the schools for service each day, because the schools do not have large prep kitchens of their own.
Food service managers are dispatched to each of the schools by 6:45 a.m. to make sure the food is ready to serve when the students arrive.
Even as breakfast is being served, staff at the Central Kitchen are already hard at work preparing lunch. Last Monday, for example, when lasagna was on the menu, as breakfast was being served, work was already underway thawing and preparing 200 pounds of ground beef.
Alvord said a lot more daily preparation work goes into feeding the students each day than many may realize, and that work is shared by six different departments: the breakfast/bread department; the main dish department, responsible for preparing the main lunch entree each day; the vegetable department; the sandwich department; the fruits department; and the salad department.
As with countless other professions, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the food service staff’s daily workload due to procedure changes and significant staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.
“Many people are doing two people’s jobs,” she said, noting that much of her staff are putting extra time in during the work day to complete all that needs to be done.
When the long preparation work is done at the Central Kitchen, she said, much of the kitchen staff are dispatched to each of the schools and also help serve food to the students. Following the meals comes a return to the kitchen for cleanup and, often, preparation work for the next day.
But it’s not just in-school students the staff feeds. They also provide meals for students who have chosen remote learning or are currently quarantined. Those meals are ordered online and picked up at the Central Kitchen.
A lot of planning
A lot of the work feeding USD 428 students and teachers does not just happen in the kitchen.
On a given day, the district feeds between 2,200 and 2,500 students, depending on attendance and those who opt to bring sack lunches.
Alvord said due to the many regulations and policies which govern commercial food service operations, there is a lot of paperwork that goes into just keeping the kitchen running. Much of what they do has to be documented and planned out well in advance.
Planning menus and making sure the kitchen has what it needs to prepare those menus is, even in ideal seasons, nearly a year-round task which requires months of advance planning.
Because of the high volume of food and supplies that must be pre-ordered from vendors with months of notice in order to get the proper amount, Alvord said she starts planning in February, and has to have menus for the following school year planned and submitted by April.
This planning process is made even more challenging with strict United States Department of Agriculture guidelines the district must meet regarding calorie and nutrient content for each meal.
For example, she said, a typical high school meal has to contain 750-850 calories (this amount is different for middle school and elementary school students), and meals at all grade levels must meet guidelines regarding sodium, fat, whole grain, milk, fruit and vegetable content and more.
She said meeting these frequently-changing guidelines, and in the process planning meals that are both nutritious and enjoyable for the students, can be a significant challenge.
COVID-19 has caused an even greater lead time in the planning process.
“It’s a lot of food and then when you have disruptions in the food chain, it makes a huge difference,” Alvord said. “We’re having to pre-order a month, even two months, ahead of time.”
The particular challenges this causes, she said, are in knowing how much food to order and not knowing how soon it will come in.
Often she has to order more than she thinks they’ll need, not knowing if they will be able to get the amount they need from the vendor. If the food comes in sooner than expected, they have to figure out how to store it, which poses additional challenges in the day-to-day operations.
Other COVID-19 impacts
When schools shut down to in-person learning in March, Alvord said the impact was immediate.
She said it was a particular challenge how to drastically shift operations in a matter of a few days to still be able to provide hot meals to students at home as they would have in schools.
“How are we going to feed kids when (they) can’t go into a building, can’t go inside, and having to package everything, trying to find products that would package well, that will still give them quality food?” Alvord said. “I didn’t just want to give them a sandwich everyday.”
Because so many students depend on the food they get at school to have nutritious meals each day, she felt maintaining as much of what they normally did in school was important.
This meant, though, not only quickly retraining staff to different procedures, but adjusting to the almost immediate food and supply shortages that so many organizations faced in the aftermath of shutdowns.
“(It was a challenge) not knowing if you can even get packaging for it, because everybody across the nation is trying to get clamshell containers to package the food in and send it home,” she said.
For example, fresh vegetables must now be individually portioned out before serving, fresh fruits must be individually bagged before they can be shipped to the schools, steps which they did not have to take before.
Alvord commended her staff for how they’ve adjusted to the new environment.
Also, though intense focus on proper sanitation and food safety is already second nature to food service employees, she said the pandemic has brought an even greater awareness to the staff on these measures.
Because of COVID, Alvord said, there is also less crossover work between departments to minimize potential exposure among staff with lower staffing levels already being a challenge.
“They’ve done wonderful things during this time and adjusting even though it’s very difficult, They’ve really taken the task on and doing what we need to do to make sure the kids get fed,” she said.
Providing for families in hard times
One positive outcome of the pandemic’s impact on food service is that the district, through the USDA free-meal program, has been able to offer free meals to all USD 428 students through Dec. 31, 2020.
The program for the fall 2020 semester originally began Sept. 8, but was later expanded to refund families for any meal paid for from the beginning of the school year on Aug. 27.
Alvord said she is grateful to have the programs available to ease the burden on many families on the district who have been hit hard by the pandemic and its financial impacts.
Also, for students who opt to bring sack lunches, the district has instituted the “Make Fruits and Vegetables a Meal” program.
Under this program, students who choose to bring a sack lunch can go through the meal service line during lunch and choose a milk, a fruit, and a vegetable, as these three items together constitute a meal under USDA guidelines, and would be free of charge through Dec. 31.