In aftermath of tragedy in Minneapolis, school district unites in hope

In part 2 of our interview with Omar Guevara-Soto, Operations Manager for Minneapolis Public Schools, he walks us through the district's emergency feeding operation, how his team in Minneapolis is handling the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, and school food's role in the larger food justice landscape.

  • Hero Highlights
  • June 25, 2020
  • By: Messa
  • Comments

The Chef Ann Foundation’s Hero Highlights | Stories from the Field is presented by Danone North America. To ensure the incredible stories of our school food workers are being told, we’re sharing stories from the field as school food teams tackle food insecurity due to widespread closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay tuned for more.

For school food support during the coronavirus pandemic, view our COVID-19 Resources & Support page. If you’d like to nominate a school food leader in your community for Hero Highlights, please send an email to submissions@chefannfoundation.org.

Read or listen to part one of this interview here.

Edited Transcript:

Today, we will be presenting the second part of a two-part interview with Omar Guevara-Soto of the Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Wellness Services in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Omar, can you briefly summarize your emergency feeding program and how you operate it? 

Of course, I'll give you the overview from the production kitchen out; how the food ends up in the box and everything. Our central facility is a production kitchen, and that entire facility was suddenly sectioned. The production team creates the meals and we pack them in-house. And then there is a box production team, where they are actually putting together the boxes that we're giving. 

We tackle all areas of the city on different days. From 10 - 2, families stop by and we  provide them with a box per child.

Are you having families pick up boxes at one of the 10 distribution sites? 

That is correct. We also have a delivery service for families if their location is not within a half a mile distance of any pick up location. We select the locations thinking about that—how to make it easy for people to walk to and make sure that they have access to the food on different days. So, if you live in an area where grocery stores are not as popular or nonexistent, you have, throughout the week, at least four sites within a radius of a half mile to one mile where you can go and get access to food. If that is an impediment, they can request home delivery and we’ll do it. 

We have also been able to support students with special dietary needs. Throughout the week, we touch 50 different sites throughout the city. It is easy for a family to actually look at the map, and find a location close to home to go and get food. 

The next question is a big one. How is your team handling the recent protests and attention specifically on Minneapolis surrounding race and racial justice? 

It is a big one, right? Minneapolis became the epicenter of despair. I must give recognition to our staff. When there's a crisis any—and I dare to say every— school food service department, instead of retreating, takes a step forward and step in. Proven right now, you see the majority of the school districts, their school food service departments, they are doing what they can to continue their feeding programs. At this time, for us, it's a double whammy. Certainly we were in the middle of a pandemic and this really sad and horrible situation of the murder of George Floyd happened. It was a pretty emotional moment the morning after when we had to gather and we had to have that conversation, and we had to explain and talk it over that we needed to still go out. We needed to be there for the community. 

Every morning we have a little check-in meeting/debrief to go over what's going on for the day. We talk about the weather. We give kudos. We go over the numbers from the day before and whatever we should be doing. That day there was a lot of silence. As of today, I am seeing how everyone is dealing with their own learning and unlearning, how people are listening and others are speaking. How is that energy still present within our team? We all ask that. It's a moment of deep listening. We asked for people to try to avoid making judgments.

We're in a transition period that is completely dominated by pain. So these conversations are sometimes light, sometimes really heavy. But, what you see is a group of people that still go out, that are taking the opportunity to connect with the community, to see their “regulars,” as we call them, when they go and pick up the boxes. And, we are encouraging people to actually—if there is a conversation that they are engaged in—to make sure that we are taking the opportunity to deliver the right message. That it is okay to just be quiet and listen, and also, it is okay to share how you're feeling. 

We cannot express enough that it is the time, more than ever, where we need everyone to be kind to one another. And it feels a little incomplete or wrong to say right now, to respect or put aside each other's differences. It is now a moment to actually confront those differences and put it at the center of what we're doing. Because we need to understand those differences. And that is part of the learning of who you are; on one side or the other, to start learning what you need to learn. And hopefully, that's for your own benefit. To show the other human being that you care for them and also to keep in mind that we work with youth and that they are looking up to us.

So, our staff - they're definitely wanting to have this conversation more. I feel that they're giving a little bit of space to really address it. And we have had some requests from our staff for [how to make things feel lighter.] So, we're working through it. We're seeing what's happening, and we're listening really hard. And trying to learn where we fit into this conversation. To let people grieve and bring a little bit of comfort, if that is possible at all. 

Do you think that these conversations affect how you have conversations or how you think about food equity as a team and as a community? 

It does. That next day, the southeast area where the precinct was, where all the fires happened, was a target. The Cub Foods burnt, was looted, and enclosed. The consequence of that was suddenly a huge area turned overnight into a food desert. I do believe school food could be at the forefront of addressing the food justice landscape. We potentially could be in a position to be sustainable and safe. And it's super important that there's a consistent source of food access to everyone. So right away what we did was increase the number of sites within the area—the most affected area of the city. 

We saw people really stepping up and helping that area because the food access was completely shut down with this. That area is a very diverse area -with a heavy Latino population. Public transportation is a must and public transportation was shut down for days. So in these areas we were able to actually step in, step forward, help, and create more access for food.

You answered my next question word for word with how you position school food in the larger food justice landscape. And I think it's so poignant the way that you said it and how you responded when you saw those food deserts—countering that with action to support those areas that needed it. Talk about kudos—major kudos.

Are you noticing any changes in your program participation due to protests and unemployment? I know you said that you saw that huge increase; has it been sustained? 

You know, it was sustained. As I said, in society a lot of groups stepped up and today there are food drives. There are people who are helping each other. And definitely that has affected a little bit of the participation because right now, it's not only school food services - it's everyone. All hands on deck in our society helping where there is need. Also, you know, when the Minnesota Liberty Fund release happened, we saw a little bit of a decrease in our participation. But it has been very steady on the average of 40,000 - 44,000 meals distributed every day. I do think that everything is coming together at the end of the school year, the beginning of the summer. 

People are starting to go back to work here in Minnesota, things are opening up a little bit. So the schedule that we have for families that were either furloughed or working from home now—they've been asked to actually go back to work. It's not realistic anymore that that is the best schedule and time of day to pick up food. So there are a list of factors that we are considering and closely aware of, and we're seeing how that is affecting [people] and when. That is part of how we are streamlining how we are going to be moving forward. So my prediction is that it will go back to being on the same level once people learn a new routine. 

A new normal. 

Right. Yes. 

So on that note of a new normal, what do you anticipate your school lunch program looking like in the fall? Has your district made any decisions yet regarding in-class versus home learning? And how do you think that will affect your department? 

Our leadership in the district, they're working hard, and I am witnessing that firsthand. They are thinking super hard. Obviously we're expecting guidance from the governor's office on how this is going to happen. Minnesota has the dial to relax all the stay-at-home rules and safety regulations, for COVID everything. They're starting to come out. But I know we have three scenarios that every school district in Minnesota is looking at. The information as it comes is shared with us. So, we are studying this huge process of if plan A goes. How does that look, what do we need to do for plan A, for plan B, for plan C. So when we're given the green light that it's a go, we could actually jump into action. 

We are carefully trying to just cover the basics so we can actually (once we are in) start the process of improving. How do we walk back to continue providing increased access to food to every student in Minneapolis Public Schools? How do we live up to what we we have branded ourselves as: a “true food” district? We're trying to engage in all this while learning and training on COVID and how to keep our staff and students safe. So it's a huge process. Not everybody loves or enjoys living in the unknown and in the gray. And this is a huge gray area that is a huge challenge. It's a huge challenge to be in, even under the best conditions. 

Can you reiterate any feedback you've heard from the community since you started the remote feeding?

It has been pretty positive feedback. Some parents say that it is like opening a gift box for their kids. It's a great activity to go pick up the box, come back home and open it and, you know, sort the food, plan their meals for the week, see the heating instructions. For those who have access to Facebook, there's a Facebook page where we actually put up videos on how to heat up the variety of fresh food that we are providing in these boxes. Chef Mark Augustine, he has been polishing the contents of those boxes. And also thinking: What are the repercussions of having all this packaging in there? So he has been working on, you know, making sure that there aren't seven little baggies of broccoli - that they're receiving the right amount of broccoli in one package.

We have asks from families like, "What do we do, how do we make the food?" There has been the creation of other Facebook pages from parents where they are sharing like, "Hey, what do you do with all the milk that you're getting?” And people are making yogurt or people are actually creating. There's a Dowling School Facebook parent page where there is a family that has organized a little drive within that neighborhood to distribute milk to whoever needs it or really drinks it. There is a lot of action around that. 

I personally am so proud of the contents of the box on that, on how positive the community has reacted to the contents. And overall I'm very pleased to see the feedback and the kudos and the recognitions coming directly to the people that are making it happen. That's the best that could happen for all of us. 

And so well deserved. 

Thanks. 

As an organization and as individuals that may be listening to this, how can we support the work that you are doing? 

We need to make sure that people know—that they remember—the awesome work that everyone involved in school food service does. But not only during emergencies, also year-round. Like salad bars, or the work that every food service coordinator and cook and assistant does. Everything they put together to actually provide meals to every student that goes into the school and the quality of meals that people put out there. 

What I would like if anybody is listening, I just would like for them to keep this in mind and to thank them for their support, to thank them for their partnership. For those that are sending their kids down to the lunchroom through the lion's den and making sure that they partake in the meals that we put out. Thank you. And for those that are recently joining us and considering—open a school account, and make sure your kid eats breakfast, lunch and takes a snack. 

Is there anything that you want the broader audience to know about the program, your work or some current circumstances? 

Yeah. We're here for the community. We're really proud of what we do, and I hope once we are back in school, we can keep up with this and work on ending that stigma of school lunch or school food. It's food in the schools. We serve good food in schools. And people need to know that. And for any youth, our hope is that they can continue getting access to fresh food, learning about food, where their food comes from, how the food ends up on their plate. And hopefully they can grow to make their own decisions. We want people to actually start being thoughtful about what's happening in that natural action that we all know as eating. Put the thought in it. What's going from your plate into your body? 

Mindfulness is so important. Omar, thank you so much for chatting with us today. You truly are an inspiration and I'm so glad that we get to feature you on this Hero Highlights series. 

Thank you for reaching out. It's awesome. And thank you to the Chef Ann Foundation for everything you guys do for us. We love the partnership. 

Yes, so do we. And we're so excited to continue building on that. 

Thank you.

Thank you for tuning into the second part of our 2-part interview with Omar. If you missed the first half, please check it out on The Lunch Line.

Now, as a reminder, if you have anyone you think should be featured, please send an email to submissions@chefannfoundation.org. Hero Highlights is a program of the Chef Ann Foundation who carries out our vision by ensuring that school food professionals have the resources, funding, and support they need to provide fresh, healthy, delicious, cooked-from-scratch meals that support the health of children and our planet. The Hero Highlights series is sponsored by Danone North America, who offers a variety of brands that kids and parents love, including Dannon, Silk, Horizon Organic, and many more. The company's mission is to bring healthier food to as many people as possible. And they greatly value their partnership with the Chef Ann Foundation to bring this vision to life within K-12 food service. Learn more at danoneawayfromhome.com. If you'd like to check out any other heroes we've highlighted, please head over to The Lunch Line at chefannfoundation.org. Thank you, and I hope you have a great day. 

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