How the city’s public schools fed children during the pandemic

Left to right, Sharon Malone, Diane Morcos and Denise Hunt Boucher, all from the Food Service Division, Arlington Public Schools, at a curbside food drive at Thompson Elementary School. See more pictures >>

History, photos
by Mélanie Gilbert

On a normal day, students from all 10 schools and one preschool in Arlington would receive breakfast and lunch in the cafeterias in their buildings. The past 15 months, however, have been anything but normal.

“Usually our work goes unnoticed,” says Denise Hunt Boucher, director of food services at Arlington Public Schools for 14 years.. “Covid changed all that.”

The district catering service during distance learning and in-person days is a combination of hot lunches to go for on-site elementary school students; cafeteria-style lunch service for Gibbs, Ottosons and high school students; and weekly meal kit pickups for distance learners and any family with kids in Arlington.

All of this is free, thanks to government grants that began at the start of the pandemic and have been extended throughout the crisis.

“It’s not perfect,” said Hunt Boucher with characteristic modesty, “but we feed the children.”

This tiered food delivery model is the culmination of many pivotal points the Arlington foodservice division has made in response to the unprecedented emergency triggered by the virus. Hunt Boucher and his team have had to constantly reinvent the role food plays in the school and in the community at large.

The Covid closes schools

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, the city of Arlington closed Stratton Elementary School as a precautionary measure due to a suspected positive case of Covid-19 in a parent of a Stratton student who was also showing symptoms. As of Monday, their positive diagnoses were confirmed and the student was the first known case of infection from a child in Massachusetts. This Thursday evening, city leaders decided to close Arlington public schools, from March 12 to March 27 at least.

Limiting the impact of Covid on the health and safety of Arlington residents was the immediate challenge – how to feed the nearly 700 students who depended on the federally-subsidized reduced or free food program was another. It was the job of Hunt Boucher and his catering team.

“[Superintendent Kathy] Bodie called me the night of March 12 to tell me the schools were closing. She said, “You have the weekend to make this happen. She was amazing. She gave us the autonomy to do it and was convinced that we could do it.

Sharon Malone, a 27-year restaurant veteran and lifelong Arlington resident, remembers the “everyone on deck” vibe of those hectic early days. “At first we were like, ‘How are we going to do this? Where do we even start? Something like this had never been done before.

Reinventing access to food

Hunt Boucher said moving existing supplies to the various schools at Thompson Elementary School in East Arlington was the first order of business. The school, which was rebuilt in 2013, has a large walk-in freezer and refrigerator, dry storage rooms, a full prep kitchen with several ovens and plenty of counters. It was the perfect setup for the new normal.

Just a week after the city’s first positive case, the food service team, which includes Diane Morcos, the elementary school’s food director, as well as many dining room employees, were distributing each day “take out” lunch bags from the Thompson lobby.

At first it was just cold food – sandwiches and bagels. But we knew we needed to reach more kids, so we switched to a weekly delivery service. “
– remembers Denise Hunt Boucher

“At first it was just cold foods, sandwiches and bagels,” Hunt Boucher recalls. “But we knew we had to reach more kids, so we switched to a weekly delivery service.” This city-wide effort required more coordination and resources. School deans, teachers, nurses, support staff, bus drivers, information technology and sports departments participated in raising awareness.

“That’s what’s great about my team and this community; they go with the flow, ”explains Hunt Boucher. The new approach worked and demand jumped.

“We delivered 300 to 350 bags,” explains Hunt Boucher, “containing 14 meals each. It’s a lot of food. As word spread, the team eventually reverted to the curbside pickup and meal kit model, which continues today.

Take-out meal kits

The school’s closure in 2020 was extended until April and then until May. By the time Governor Baker announced the state was extending the shutdown of all public and private schools until the end of the school year, Hunt Boucher’s team had already found their rhythm.

“Ordering was the tricky part,” said Hunt Boucher, “We had to design menus with foods that were easy for kids – open, microwave, eat. We were able to recreate the children’s previous cafeteria experience in bag form. This included frozen versions of the most popular item on the school lunch menu: pizza.


Food resources

Meal kits are available for pickup from Thompson School, 187 Everett St., Arlington, Wednesdays 7 am-9am and 11 am-1pm.

On June 30, the schedule changes from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. only. Please contact the Food Service Division at 781-316-3643 or email your questions to school lunch at arlington.k12.ma.us.

Any Arlington resident in need of food, regardless of age, can call the Arlington Food Help Line at 781-316-3400.

Arlington is also certified Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (BREAK) application location for all ages in town. Call the Arlington Council on Aging at 781-316-3400.

Additionally, contact two Arlington nonprofits – Food Link and Arlington EATS.

In response to the worsening public health crisis over the summer, the US Department of Agriculture eased dietary restrictions for school districts. Under the direction of the Food and Nutrition Service, Arlington could expand its food eligibility program to anyone in the community with school-aged children. The expansion was a game-changer for Hunt Boucher and his team.

“This fall, it really took off,” said Boucher. “We went from 350 bags during the summer to 1,600 bags of food. It was a bit overwhelming. We are able to offer meal kits with seven days of breakfast and lunch to anyone in the community with school age children 18 and under, regardless of income or education.

Curbside pickup

The Thompson Gymnasium was adapted to meet the demand. The increase was caused in part by the increase in the number of unemployed, illness and declining income. But, says Hunt Boucher, it was also thanks to the incredible support of the community. “People were collecting bags for their neighbors and supporting the program through their participation. After the initial flurry, the number stabilized around 1,200 bags picked up each week.

Each meal kit is packaged for just-in-time, curbside distribution and contains 14 meals – seven each of breakfasts and lunches. For breakfast there are cereals, yogurts, pancakes, and breakfast bars; snacks such as graham crackers, animal cookies, cheese sticks, crisps and fruit slices; and for lunch, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizzas, vegetables, bagels and sandwiches. Fresh fruit and a variety of beverages complete the fully loaded bag with half a gallon of milk. Bags with gluten-free and vegetarian options are also available.

The USDA has extended the program through the summer.

The Hunt Boucher team is ready

Starting every Wednesday morning, a constant stream of cars hit the sidewalk on the Everett Street side in Thompson. Hunt Boucher, Malone and Morcos work in a well-regulated fashion to load bags into cars. A young boy shouts “Hello” to them, followed by a forceful movement through his back seat window. Her mother comes looking for several neighbors, Malone says, as she loads several bags onto the trunk.

“Honestly, I think it went extremely well,” says Malone between loads of meal kits into the cars. “Hearing that children are happy – and fed – makes me happy. “

Hunt Boucher agrees. “At the end of the day, we want to feed people. “

Another car stops on the sidewalk. Malone, Morcos and Hunt Boucher enter into action.

This fall it will be back to business as usual – fingers crossed – with in-person learning and cafeteria-style food service just like before the pandemic.


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This The report by YourArlington freelance writer Melanie Gilbert was published on Monday, June 28, 2021.


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