COVID is a hurdle, but this FSD is getting through it with her staff
This Illinois school food director is facing major procurement challenges during COVID, but the gratitude and success is worth it
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Elena Hildreth is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services at School District U-46 in Elgin, IL. The K-12 district spans 55 locations and 11 communities, with a student enrollment of almost 38,000 and 70% free and reduced price eligibility. Currently, Hildreth and her team are serving about 47,000 to 50,000 meals per day amid COVID-19 school closures. Here's our conversation on U-46's remote feeding program as well as Hildreth's biggest challenges and successes.
What was your first thought when COVID hit? How did you react?
We found out on Friday the 13th that we were closing and then reopening [for food service] on March 17. It was not a whole lot of warning, but I’m kind of an adrenaline junky so kicking into alternate feeding was a lot of fun. We started ordering food so that we had meals to plan. We picked 26 sites that were area-eligible and decided that we were going to continue doing breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks. We decided we would just go ahead and continue with snacks and just absorb the expense.
We planned menus for the week, using some of what we had already. We have a commissary with a manufacturing line. On Mondays and Wednesdays we do two days worth of meals and on Fridays they get one meal. We decided that because our trucks were so full with products that we would use Tuesdays and Thursdays to stock up with other dry goods.
The first thing I did was order t-shirt bags because we needed something to put the food in. So we really kind of got it down to a science.
It was all food service up until a couple weeks ago. Once they dispensed all of the students’ medicines and all the nurses were available we put them in some of the locations in the high need communities so that there’s a nurse there in case anybody in the community needs some help.
Wow, that’s really thoughtful wrap-around programming. Congratulations on reaching that many students, that’s so incredible!
We’re up over 600,000 meals since we started on March 17 and we just keep increasing. That also doesn't include snack bags with chips, a granola bar, a piece of fruit, and a bottle of water. [Editor's note: As of Friday, May 15th, 2020, Hildreth's staff has served over 1 million meals and continuing through July 30.]
Can you describe your operation? How are you distributing meals and what does your operation look like?
Our commissary is producing some of the meals. Breakfast is all shelf stable or frozen bakery like bread, muffins, that kind of stuff. For lunch we try to have double header days, one production-made, one individually wrapped for each meal period. Today we had chef’s salad, burgers, and potato wedges. Sometimes it’s just a mish mosh trying to find items, but we have a giant warehouse so we’re in good shape.
You mentioned your suppliers are having a hard time keeping up with your current demand. How has that shifted from the way you previously ordered?
Well we normally purchase through everything from Gordon foods and then we use a local produce company who also is our DoD vendor so between the two we just try to make do and be very creative in what we purchase. Because of our volume it's kind of difficult; we’ll plan and then all of sudden we’ll find out two days before the delivery is to come that we did not get our deliveries, so then we’re scrambling. But because of our volume I'm able to order directly and because we have the warehouse we have some flexibility. We've maintained the integrity of the NSLP and the meal regulations as much as we can. We’re trying to do the best we can to stay up with the meal components, but sometimes it’s just [a matter of] availability. The DoD dollars are pretty much gone.
I would love to hear about your commissary kitchen and how you do your prep versus how you get things out to your individual sites, and how your individual sites are preparing their meals.
Everything that we do is ingredient-based assembly or individually wrapped items. I have three manufacturing lines; one is an overwrap where you take something and make it into an individually wrapped item that has oven proof paper. I have one line that is for entrees and one that is for vegetable or fruit sides. Under normal circumstances, we would be running as much as we can down the line and then we ship them out to sites. Under this circumstance, everything is going out either produced or in bulk, and then they're actually setting up assembly lines at the buildings [where] they assemble breakfast, lunch, supper, and snacks in grocery T-shirt bags. Then they dispense it. [The staff] get in between 7-7:30 and then we’re open to the public 10-11:30 for meal pickup. It’s not just for our distinct, it's anybody under the age of 18.
How do you prepare for that?
It was a lot of trial and error at the beginning, mixing some shelf stable items with items that are individually wrapped. At the sites they’re preparing up to their average numbers and some extras. There's a local church that partnered with a couple schools in their community and they've been donating prepared meals as well. We’ve been giving them out as extras because we don't make them, so we’re not claiming them, but we’re kind of their dispensing platform.
People start lining up at 9:30 even though we don’t open until 10 and today was a really nice day, weather-wise. Sometimes we run out but then we’ll say, “Come over to this site, I know they have meals.” It’s tough. Some days it works perfectly and some days one side of town will have too many and one side of town we’re running out. A lot of it is just calling around on cell phones.
With this many sites we cover 11 communities, so it’s not that easy to leave Elgin to run over to Bartlett to pick up 30 meals and come back to south Elgin. Sometimes we are short and then next time we just make sure we have extra and try to communicate that out.
That sounds like a feat in itself! Are you taking any special PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) protocols?
We have tons of gloves; gloves are common. We have a limited supply of masks. Some of our staff has been really creative and made a bunch to express their personal flare. Right now we're holding steady with masks. Some of them are really having a lot of fun with it in terms of personalizing the masks.
Tell me about some of the biggest challenges that you’ve been facing, what are the top three?
Sourcing food has probably been all three of them because you can’t plan if you don’t know for sure if you’re getting [a product]. But I've been very blessed with my staff. I appreciate every minute that they give me.
When you don’t get the delivery you're expected to get how do you solve that?
We juggle. We stock piled our shelf stable items at the beginning. We’re kind of repurposing items we had in the freezer to create a meal. But again, then we have the directions that have to get translated, copied, and sorted. With 26 sites, there may be 15 different menu combinations so that schools have enough meals.
To counter that challenge, can you tell me what you’re most proud of in this period of COVID?
I have to say my staff. You know, not knowing at all what they were going to do or how they were going to react. It’s an aging workforce and a lot of them have kids that are at home. I have a core group that has been committed since the beginning. It has been a joy.
The other thing is that I've had secondary people working at elementary, so people that have worked in the same department for 20 years never knew people in other schools. We are a team; everybody knows everybody now. I normally have 230 employees, so the 150 that I have working are now a nice, core, tight team. It’s awesome. That’s the best.
This is only my second year with this district. It is really amazing how people really just step up. I’m the only department in full swing in the district; people are working from home, but my staff and I are here every day.
Do you have any thoughts about how you might be reintegrating salad bars into your program post-COVID?
The question started coming up yesterday. I would like to think that we can go back to the plan and maybe just change utensils out more frequently. The kids touch doorknobs, counters, they touch each other, they touch the bathroom door, they flush toilets... Whether they touch a spoon or not… that's the part I struggle with. They can’t live in a bubble, you know? I don’t know.
The elementary kids love the salad bar! It’s more cost effective for me and the kids get their pick. I'm hopeful that schools will, by then, start practicing better sanitation. Like, what about the kids that go to recess before lunch? I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to go back with a few extra precautions. Typically, our elementary sites have three sets of everything (utensils): one on site, one in transit, and one that’s clean. Maybe I need to have 4 so they have backup at the sites.
We’re hopeful, too, that people are going to continue using their salad bars and that there’s no stigma around it now. To wrap up, I'd love to hear what’s going on with the community. Have you seen any engagement?
There’s been a lot of really good comments on social media. A lot of my staff will do a menu set-up and post a picture of what they’re serving and there’s been a lot of really good feedback about what we’re doing. People are out there picking up meals and are expressing that they’re grateful. Someone just saying thank you to our staff when they come through is huge. My faith in mankind is restored a little bit. I have to tell you, I was getting a little cynical in my old age but I think we’re good we’re in a good place.
I’m glad to hear your faith has been restored! Elena, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. We really wish you the best with your program and are looking forward to hearing updates.
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