Nourishing Students, and Now Their Families, as the Pandemic Wears On
When schools shuttered in March, nutrition services teams across Minnesota scrambled to ensure they could feed the more than 300,000 students who rely on schools for their meals every day.
“We had to flip and pivot in just two days,” explained Maria Anderson, Nutrition Services Coordinator with Roseville Area Schools. “In normal times, the kitchens at each of our schools are cooking and serving breakfast, lunch, and supper to our kiddos, with many also providing a fruit or vegetable snack. We’d be sourcing healthy, local food and developing menus and recipes.”
Roseville Nutrition Services serves 7,500 students, around 50 percent of whom qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Their pivot from in-school meals in March meant they began immediately offering curbside pick-up and delivery of microwave-ready fridge and freezer meals to keep students fed for five days.
Fast forward to October and Roseville Area Schools are beginning to phase in blended learning, but student nutrition needs persist whatever their learning environment. And with COVID cases on the rise again, the nutrition services team is remaining nimble and creative in meeting both student and family nutrition needs by launching Roseville Family Table.
“Roseville Family Table is what we’re calling the evolution of our out-of-school meals program, as we’re now able to provide our families with a one-stop pick up of their kids’ meal nutrition boxes as well as delicious, culturally relevant to-go-style dinners they can sit down and enjoy together each weekend,” said Maria. “Roseville Family Table is open to all families in our district.”
Nourishing community through collaboration
Those family dinners are being prepared by Minnesota Central Kitchen, an initiative of Second Harvest Heartland that provides meals to anyone experiencing the COVID-19 hunger surge and nourishes community through collaboration.
“We know how critical schools are in providing nutrition to our students so they can learn and thrive, but we also know that the COVID-19 pandemic is making food access, especially prepared meal access, acutely painful for parents and families,” explained Hannah Keuler, child hunger specialist at Second Harvest Heartland. “Since spring we’ve wanted to bring this kind of family service partnership to life, so we’re grateful to Roseville Area Schools and Minnesota Department of Education for helping make it happen for their families.”
Through school partnerships like this, Second Harvest Heartland’s Child Hunger team can find innovative solutions to food access barriers. Schools are a trusted community hub and play an integral role in the hunger relief system, so it’s a natural extension of school meal programs to feed the whole family through ideas like Roseville Family Table.
Every day our Child Hunger team works with education partners to boost participation in school meal programs that work to end hunger, advocates for increasing access to and improving the quality of these programs, and champions new innovations that better serve children.
Roseville Family Table weekly distributions will be staffed by Second Harvest Heartland volunteers, who have been eager to reengage in service but limited by necessary COVID safety and distancing guidelines. Nine hearty volunteers will staff these outdoor, distanced and controlled distributions each week through mid-December, alongside staff from Second Harvest Heartland and Roseville Nutrition Services.
The power of having dinner ready
The Minnesota Central Kitchen team of 11 kitchen sites and five distribution partners makes a special effort to serve Minnesotans who might not be able to cook or access prepared meals right now, including those who are sick, homebound, unhoused, frontline or essential workers, and the children and families whose caregivers are ill.
“Providing meals for students and families is one of the most important things we can be doing during these times,” shared local chef Justin Sutherland of the Handsome Hog. “Food insecurity is at an all-time high and combating it is a major step to moving forward.”
Justin and Chef David Fhima are the culinary force behind Roseville Family Table. Each week, their teams will prepare 3,300 meals for distribution to families at the three Roseville school sites, with Latinx, Hmong and Traditional Minnesota menu options available.
“Who you cook for changes, but why you cook never does,” explained David. “Unprecedented times like these need these services more than ever. Being a small vehicle in the work of feeding our community is humbling.”
A relentless commitment to keeping students and families fed
The Roseville Nutrition Services team, and teams like them across the state, always knew they were essential long before Governor Walz deemed them as such in his March emergency declaration. But the pandemic and modified learning environments have certainly tested how critical they are.
“Our skilled, professional staff are committed to serving students at home, at school and everywhere in between,” Maria summarized. “We know there is nothing ‘normal’ about this school year, but we hope that school meals not only provide sound nutritious fuel, but familiarity and comfort during this challenging year.”