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  • Bettina Applewhite

School Lunch Hero Day 2021

Today is School Nutrition Hero Day! May 7, 2021. I've always been a proud lunch lady but this past year it has been my honor to be counted among the school nutrition professionals. When the world was shutting down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, school nutrition professionals were among the frontline workers handing out free meals to children. I always knew we were heroes but this year we got the recognition that has been well deserved.

School Lunch Heroes in Dallas Time Article for Heroes of the Front Lines
Photo by Elizabeth Bick for TIME

Many students depend on school meals to meet their nutritional needs. When the pandemic was intensifying and there were threats of shutdowns. Many lawmakers and hunger groups were concerned about the students who relied on school meals to meet their nutritional needs. On March 16, 2020, Governor Hogan (Maryland) initiated mandatory closures of schools, gyms, and restricted the size of gatherings. Even though schools were closed, the kitchens remained open. Our school nutrition staff got to work planning meals and using what we had and embarking on a journey we've never done before. We started at target schools and then branched out into the communities. We used campaigns to get the word out that we were providing FREE meals for anyone 18 years old and younger. We grew from 12 sites around the county to over 300 sites by the time school began for the 2020/2021 school year. We started this thinking that it would be a 2 week adventure and over a year later, we are still in this pandemic life.

In the past year we have provided over 5 million FREE meals to children in our communities. The only qualification to receiving these meals was the appropriate age group. Students who attended schools in other districts and students who were home schooled were all encouraged to come get these free meals. We got better with meal selections over time. We provided ready to eat foods like sandwiches, yogurt parfaits, and hummus, and meals that could be reheated at home like spaghetti and meat sauce and chicken drumsticks. Over the course of the program, we've provided breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

mobile meals hero 2020 t-shirt, balloons, and cupcake with number 1 candle
Celebrating 1 Month of Mobile Meals

Just like any new adventure, it started with madness as we had to quickly pivot and figure out how we are going to provide this service safely and efficiently. It was hard keeping up with the changing CDC recommendations. It felt like every hour we were changing a protocol. We were moving kitchens and menus and laughing hysterically at each others' mistakes. Through all the hysteria, we were constantly reminded of the reason we're out here when we had parents and children thanking us constantly for being out there in the snow and rain and cold providing a much needed service. It was very humbling to know that we were part of the solution to the turmoil that was happening all around us. Many businesses were closing or reducing their staff so money became tight. It's good to know that these meals helped families who needed it.

Through the crisis management and intense times of working with a small group, we created bonds that would not have been formed otherwise. We were individuals of different ranks and from different schools, but we all had one mission: "feed the kids". In our small little group, we got to work along side people we never met and formed lasting bonds along the way. We worked with the school transportation staff to help deliver meals to communities. We got to ride the school bus! By the time it was time for us to go back to our usual settings to continue the mission, we were sad to see our group dismantled. The opportunity to get to work so closely with some of my staff that I don't get to talk to as much as I would like to was an invaluable experience for me. It helped me with my leadership that will benefit the entire team.

So on today's "School Lunch Hero Day" thank a lunch lady (or man) or two for the hard work that we do daily but especially the sacrifice that we gave over the past year.


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