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Mike Burke

Powering Through the Pandemic in K12 Foodservice

Feeding hundreds of children balanced meals is one of the most important and demanding jobs there is. And navigating that essential function in the middle of a pandemic puts added stress on an already stressful situation. To add to the chaos, schools across the country are operating in various models when it comes to in-person education and foodservice.  While some are serving in the cafeteria, others are bringing meals to the classroom or distributing meal boxes. No matter what your system looks like, one thing is for sure, it looks different.

That’s why we’re breaking down the essentials of K-12 foodservice during COVID, to help you pivot quickly and spark new ideas for how you can best serve your students.

Setting the Menu

When setting a menu in the time of half-attendance, classroom lunches or whatever foodservice looks like in your district, it’s important to think about where and how your lunch service will operate, in addition to what you are serving. If you are going to be serving two different groups of kids in school within one week, for example, one group of students on Monday and Tuesday, and then another group Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, then your menu could repeat two of those days. This allows for efficiency in ordering and even preparation. If the food will be traveling down hallways for in-class meals, consider foods that stay fresh for longer periods of time.

Serving the Food

Determining how to serve the food is one of the largest challenges schools face today. In some places, the strategy changes weekly. Most cafeterias have limited the number of children allowed in lunchrooms at a time – making serving times and the length of time foods need to be kept fresh longer.  Cafeterias need to ensure that they have the proper equipment – and enough of it – to handle this evolving situation.

Two things are paramount if your school is doing meal delivery to classrooms: First, the food needs to be mobile – and second, it needs to be kept hot. Grab-and-go lunch or snack options should be easy to batch and individually wrap or package.

Finally, you’ll need to consider labor. It’s possible you’ll need less staff to serve fewer students, however take into consideration mobility and the possibility of serving multiple classrooms at once, which may even mean an increase in staff.

Maintaining Sanitation

The increase in safety, as well as the increase in serving times, will mean sanitizing is of utmost importance. For example, if trays are used to distribute in-classroom meals, there needs to be consideration for sanitizing each tray. If food is served in the cafeteria, in addition to your normal sanitizing policies, you will need to ensure each surface is disinfected after every child. This will need to be done quickly, to keep the flow of foodservice moving. One idea is to have a designated ‘sanitizer’ on staff, whose sole responsibility is to keep things clean and moving. 

Preparing Equipment

How you cook, warm and serve the food is just as important as what you are serving. That’s why it’s important to look at your foodservice equipment. First, take inventory of what you have. Do you have the right equipment lineup to adapt to your new menu and procedures? If not, consider what equipment will get you the most efficiency for the cost. One item most schools are adding is a cook and hold oven. It frees up labor and can also be used to keep food warm until serving. You may also need an additional convection oven or steamer to keep up with the quick pace and turnover of the longer serving times. Once you have a good inventory of what you have, and what you need, consider how you can get creative with your equipment. Another thing to consider when you’re planning your COVID-adapted kitchen is that there are some companies, like Vulcan, that offer try-before-you-buy programs, which can ease the burden of making equipment decisions.

Balancing the safety of students and staff with the need to serve a high-volume of meals in a short amount of time is challenging, to say the least. Work closely with your district, and plan for flexibility, so you can evolve as you learn what works and what doesn’t in this new, unprecedented, normal. 

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