Kids might call them lunch ladies. You might call them Child Nutrition Directors. At Tyson Foods, we call them K-12 Operators. But we should all call them heroes.
When COVID-19 shut down schools earlier this year, K-12 operators rose up to meet the hunger crisis head-on. And they haven’t stopped. They are fighting the good fight, feeding children and keeping our communities healthy.
Four K-12 operators shared their stories with me, and the same sentiment was repeated over and over, “The mission doesn’t change; we want to keep kids fed.”
Melissa Bryan, Director of Child Nutrition in Copperas Cove, Texas
Melissa has 16 years of experience in child nutrition. But when COVID-19 hit, she had to get into a whole new mindset, operating with a new way of handing out meals, tracking them, and taking safety precautions.
She had two simple goals: feed as many kids as possible, and keep her staff employed. She set up three grab-and-go sites, with tents and ponchos donated from Tyson Foods, so she and her staff could serve meals rain or shine.
Meanwhile, parents came through the food line crying, dealing with job loss and taking handouts, many for the first time. Knowing COVID was touching many households in her community made it more important than ever to make sure meals continued as long as possible. The CCISD Child Nutrition Department even partnered with the City of Copperas Cove and utilized the CCISD bus drivers to deliver them and were able to provide meals for senior citizens around the city. More than 500 meals were served each day to senior citizens, and this was a very important area since many of them could not get out to grocery stores and shop.
Melissa doesn’t take any of this lightly. Heading into the new school year, her focus is on flexibility for families, whether they opt for coming to school or virtual learning. Her mission doesn’t change; she wants to keep kids fed.
Jenny Arredondo, Director of Child Nutrition in San Antonio, Texas
Jenny serves in a school district where 90% of kids receive free and reduced meals. During COVID-19, her team served 90,000 meals a day, including breakfast and lunch. They even expanded their distribution sites, so families without cars could walk to pick up food. By the end of summer, they had served 2 million meals.
What Jenny is most proud of during this trying time is they did not leave a single gap in feeding kids, from the school closure in March to the current school year. She says that wouldn’t have been possible without her team’s heart for service and key partnerships. The USDA and local food banks provided additional food, and Tyson Foods provided tents for their curbside pick-up locations.
As this new school year begins, she feels ready with a robust curbside operation and 100 buses making various stops to deliver meals.
Jenny believes she and her team are on this Earth to feed kids. Her mission doesn’t change; she wants to keep kids fed.
Wendy Burrus, Child Nutrition Director in Farmington, Arkansas
Since school closed in March, Wendy’s team packed and distributed meals to students through volunteer delivery drivers.
Twice a week, the child nutrition team met to pack enough meals to last until the next delivery date. Then volunteers from the school district staff would load the meals up and get assigned delivery routes.
Wendy says it was a huge challenge to figure out a “new normal,” but her team recognized the urgency of keeping kids fed. The team could not have operated without assistance from the transportation and technology departments, helping with meal sign-ups and delivery routes.
As school starts back up, even lunch in the cafeteria isn’t the usual. They now offer more lunch sessions so fewer kids are gathered together, and lunch is packaged instead of on open trays to decrease the opportunity for viral spread.
“Lunch ladies are a family,” Wendy says fondly. “Our mission doesn’t change; we want to keep kids fed.”
Agnes Lally, Child Nutrition Director in Garden Grove, CA
Agnes brings a can-do attitude to everything she does. When COVID-19 hit in March, her team set up 13 sites to provide breakfast and lunch to kids. By the end of June, they had fed over 1.2 million meals.
They kept serving through summer school and now have 31 grab-and-go meal sites set up for the new school year, which is 100% virtual learning, to serve breakfast and lunch to kids every day.
Why so many sites? Agnes explained Garden Grove serves a broad demographic, including well over half of students eligible for free and reduced meal status. Ensuring they have easy access to meals is critical.
Over the summer, Tyson Foods sent Agnes and her team K-12 hero gear that included hats, aprons and buttons to say thank you and recognize the admirable work they do. Their mission doesn’t change; they want to keep kids fed.
Join us in a collective THANK YOU to the K-12 heroes keeping kids fed!