Turlock Unified School District families were recently able to enjoy a “take and bake” experience thanks to the efforts of the Child Nutrition Department — just one of many ways the entity responsible for feeding the city’s students is ensuring bellies stay full during the pandemic.
Curbside meals have been a mainstay for students and parents as school sites remain shut down for the most part due to COVID. With campus cafeterias unable to serve hot meals to students, Director of Child Nutrition Jennifer Lew Vang and her staff got creative this week in order to make the most of products stashed away in their freezer.
Those who stopped by Wakefield Elementary School on Wednesday to pick up their school meals also received an entire pizza pie, which was frozen and ready to bake at home. The pizzas are typically baked for students at school, sliced and served during a normal school year, and Lew Vang realized they could send home one pizza per family during the weekly meal distributions rather than let the food sit in storage.
“We had an abundance of pizzas in our warehouse, but due to COVID we’re unable to produce a hot meal to distribute,” Lew Vang said. “We decided to become creative and find a way to wrap the pizzas individually so that they can take them home and bake them, similar to Papa Murphy’s.”
Lew Vang added that the Child Nutrition Department came up with the idea a few months ago, but it took some time to order the plastic material used to wrap the pizzas, as well as print out and include instructions that were California Department of Education-approved.
Each pizza serves eight, and families were granted one entire pie to themselves in addition to the school meals provided through curbside distribution. Currently, school sites provide 14 meals per week, both breakfast and lunch, to students who are still distance learning, and 10 meals per week to those participating in the district’s blended learning model.
“They love it. They are so grateful that we have continued to serve our families and have become creative to serve them and optimize on the need,” Lew Vang said.
She added that the Child Nutrition Department is looking into other large meals they could provide for families, like rotisserie chickens. But there are also other ways the department is providing meals in mass quantities to families.
Last May, TUSD became the first school district on the West Coast to distribute food boxes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. While the boxes were being distributed once again on Wednesday through a partnership with Ag Link, there was a two-month lull where the local agriculture retailer was not awarded the USDA food boxes.
Once again, Lew Vang and team used their creativity and utilized funding from the state’s fresh fruit and vegetable pilot program to collaborate with Ag Link to make their own food boxes. The TUSD produce boxes are available for families with children 18 and under who are eligible for school lunches, and include a variety of dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, fresh vegetables and more.
The USDA boxes also recently became available again through a Bay Area company Daylight Foods, which was awarded the federal program and agreed to deliver 800 boxes to TUSD weekly. The USDA boxes are available for not only students, but any community member in need and are distributed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday at Pitman High School, Dutcher Middle School, Turlock High School and Wakefield Elementary School.
All of this has added up to quite the haul for families looking to keep their children fed while school is out; families on Wednesday received not only their whole pizza pie, but school meals for the week, a TUSD produce box and a USDA food box containing items like milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, fruits and vegetables.
The boxes make a difference, Lew Vang said, and utilize funding that helps students remain nourished. When TUSD had to stop providing the USDA boxes, meal participation went from about 700 families per school site to between 300 and 400 families. Once the TUSD boxes were introduced, participation shot back up, and on Wednesday a line snaked around Wakefield to receive both of the boxes.
“It’s been a huge success. Families are enjoying the ability to have a mass quantity of fruit or vegetables instead of small, individual packs they have to open up. It lasts a bit longer for them,” Lew Vang said.
The Child Nutrition Department has made an effort to ensure no child goes hungry during the pandemic — a goal of Lew Vang’s, who began her job as director just weeks before COVID closed the schools. The department has even made home deliveries to children who can’t make it to meal pickup, she said, and she intends on continuing to make sure students stay satiated.
“My ultimate goal as a registered dietitian was to ensure all children in need were being fed,” she said. “What it comes down to is that we reach just about everyone that we can possibly reach, and I just want to make sure all children in need have access to nutritious, real fresh meals.”