SoWashCo Nutrition Services on COVID-19, free food, and returning to school

Posted 8/25/21

The United States Department of Education (USED) has identified healthy eating as “important” among K-12 students. In the “Volume 2 2021 ED COVID-19 HANDBOOK: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and …

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SoWashCo Nutrition Services on COVID-19, free food, and returning to school


The United States Department of Education (USED) has identified healthy eating as “important” among K-12 students. In the “Volume 2 2021 ED COVID-19 HANDBOOK: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs,” they claim that nutrition impacts academic performance, wellness, and development. For that reason, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided to extend meal service flexibilities through June of 2022. “The waivers continue the [Biden-Harris] Administration’s commitment to provide safe, healthy meals free of charge to children as the pandemic continues to threaten the food and nutrition security of our most vulnerable,” reads the USDA’s press release of April 20, 2021.

In response to this announcement, South Washington County (SoWashCo) Schools was contacted. The Journal had the opportunity to interview Director of Nutrition Services Wendy Peterson. She confirmed that her district will be joining the country as they freely distribute breakfasts and lunches all of this school year. With assistance from the state and federal government, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services will proceed to serve scrumptious food in a way that is safe and accessible.

Peterson has not always overseen school cafeterias. She worked in restaurant management for over two decades before being hired into SoWash-Co Schools. The director’s eleven years with the district have enabled her to blend her two passions: food and children.

With Peterson’s leadership, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services is focused on meeting the dietary needs and cravings of students. “We’ve done a lot of work around…more culturally responsive foods so that we’re meeting the needs of all of the students within South Washington County School District,” displayed Peterson. “We do have two dietitians on staff who work directly with the parents and the students when it comes to their needs around their special diets.”

On top of tending to the demands of different children, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services values the federal government’s expectations. Their official website writes, “[Breakfast and lunch] menus meet or exceed USDA standards.”

According to Peterson, this never changed-even when COVID-19 broke out in the United States. The beginning of the pandemic was “a struggle for every nutrition department throughout the country.” Beginning in March of 2020, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services hurdled obstacles such as excess product, needing to transition from a cafeteria to a curbside model in 72 hours, and having to furlough the “majority” of their employees. “Gut-wrenching” is the word that Peterson put to that last response. “We really look at our our staff as our family,” she expressed. “…To tell people that they no longer had jobs in the middle of a pandemic was, was horrible.”

Because just a portion of their original group remained, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services simplified their menu. What remained on it were dishes that their limited staff could handle creating and home-alone remote learners could reheat without adult supervision. The minimized, yet healthy menu remained in-effect through this summer. “I want to stress that it wasn’t poor quality, it was just simplified,” clarified Peterson.

Throughout the pandemic, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services received help from the USDA. Peterson detailed, “With COVID-19, the federal government put out a lot of what they called, ‘waivers,’ different flexibilities on how we were allowed to service the students…there were waivers around allowing parents to pick up food…parents were allowed to pick up…bulk meals.”

The two nationwide flexibilities that Peterson was referring to in that comment deemed useful in SoWashCo Schools. Their very first “Meal Pick-Up” unfolded at Crestview Elementary School. 400 meals were distributed that day. The COVID-19 Pandemic peaked in Washington County on November 29, 2020 when 455 new cases were recorded in one day. This data can be found on the Washington County COVID-19 Statistics dashboard. It was during that winter when SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services was cranking out roughly 40,000 meals per week and corresponding with ever-shifting learning models.

Why did SoWashCo Nutrition Services endure through the unprecedented times? Each year, 18% of district families qualify for free or reduced meals, on average. Peterson recognized that feeding them as well as households with hidden food insecurities during a pandemic is “critical:” “We know we’re meeting a serious need in our community and helping these families that truly had food insecurities…it was a challenging, challenging time for many people in our community during the pandemic when so many people were furloughed or flat out lost their jobs.”

Now, SoWashCo Schools Nutrition Services is fixing their gaze on the 2021-2022 school year. In fact, they have since June. The organization established plans to facilitate their cafeterias in somewhat of a pre-COVID-19 fashion. This fall, full breakfast and lunch menus will return.

The Journal writes, “somewhat,” because some health and safety precautions keep in-effect. First of all, facial masks will be enforced as students in grades K-8 enter breakfast and lunch lines. The official So-WashCo Schools website elaborates on this rule: “Face coverings are required for all people in a school setting (age 2 and above through grade 8) including staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status beginning Aug. 23. Face coverings are strongly recommended for all people in high schools (9-12+).”

The district reasons that COVID-19 is “unpredictable” at this time. They continue, “The recent increase in cases in Washington County requires us to make adjustments to the health and safety plans that were shared on July 6.”

SoWashCo Schools’ statement is accurate. The Washington County COVID-19 Statistics Dashboard shows that on July 6, 27,473 cumulative cases existed in the county. Exactly one month later, there were 28,026.

Other health and safety precautions that will appear in SoWashCo Schools’ cafeterias are individual portions of condiments and a touchless paying process.

Although every student will have to approach the cashier in the lunch line, they will not be charged for their breakfasts and lunches. Phrased in a different way, children will freely secure their first plate of meat/ meat alternate, bread/grains, fruits, vegetables and milk. “A La Carte” foods and drinks, also termed, “Smart Snacks,” will be charged to students’ accounts. Likewise, second entrees have a price.

Readers may wonder how SoWashCo Schools plans to pay for the free meals that all children are gaining in the district. Peterson acknowledged their concerns: “Due to the pandemic, the federal government has decided to waive all of the fees for this next school year. And the federal government will be doing the reimbursement for the meals. So, it is going to be covered by the federal government with some reimbursement at the state level as well.”

Even though every student is eligible to eat breakfast and lunch without cost, guardians are urged to apply for educational benefits. In fact, Peterson declared that this action is “critical.” If a household applies and becomes eligible, their child’s school can generate additional revenue. “And so, if they do not apply because they are automatically getting those free and reduced meals, the district, and more importantly, that student’s individual school,” Peterson revealed, “will see a decrease in that additional revenue.”

SoWashCo Schools families can navigate to services/nutrition in order to find the Free and Reduced-Price Meals Application. It is a form that should be submitted annually if parents desire to gain educational benefits.