Cheese stuffed lasagna shells, whole grain roll, roasted brussels sprouts and eggplant Deidra Strom

Lake Hamilton School District in Garland County provided 6,622 take-home meals for students for the week of Thanksgiving break, and Deidra Strom, who is contracted through Chartwells K12 to operate the Lake Hamilton School District’s Child Nutrition Program, said the district was surprised at the volume of families asking for the meals. 

Waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow for students to be fed on non-instructional days within the school calendar. Strom said that for spring break last year, the district did a pre-registration for take-home meals and that at one point in the summer even did some door deliveries.

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“While registration worked for some of those models, it didn’t work for all of them,” Strom said. “We’d end up prepping thousands of meals and a quarter of the folks would show up.”

So for that reason, Strom and her boss decided not to do registration for Thanksgiving week.

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“We just decided to wing it,” she said. Strom said the decision was a “huge mistake.” The turnout was the highest they’ve had since the pandemic started. “I’m not kidding, the line [of cars] was about a mile long,” Strom said.

Strom and her team planned on giving out the Thanksgiving break meals on Friday, Nov. 20, from 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

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“At 10:45 I had to call it. I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to shut down for an hour and a half and prep, and you guys can come back from 12:30 to 2:30.’ The volume was completely unexpected,” she said.

Strom said that Fridays are usually slow because of the flexible schedule enacted because of the pandemic. “Especially in the secondary schools, because we’ll go from feeding 500 kids to 60 on Fridays. So I cut my crew down. We had 5 people in the kitchen. That was it. So I called administrators and all the maintenance guys because I have a really good relationship with them and created a manufacturing line in the kitchen. … One woman got out of her car and was crying because she was so thankful. One in every 50 cars I get that response. It’s a nice reminder of why we’re doing this. So we ended up doing 473 students, but when you give them seven breakfasts and seven lunches, it was 3,311 of each which totaled 6,622 meals for the week of Thanksgiving,” Strom said.

The district, with an enrollment of over 4,400 students, served around a quarter of a million meals from March through August to children without access to in-person classroom learning.

Strom described how the district has been feeding students since the beginning of the pandemic in March. “From March to July we operated in ways we’d never imagined,” Strom said. “It definitely had its moments of challenge and stress, but I have an amazing team I work with, and together we adapted and evolved in many ways in order to feed kids in the community. We’ve continued with that mindset since school started back in August. We do what we have to in order to provide nutrition to the students. There’s a whole universe that I feel like has gone under the radar and that’s child nutrition programs within school districts,” she said.

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Since school started back up in August, meals are served in the cafeteria, but in an effort to space students out, they’ve added additional lunch periods and lunches are being served in the classroom, the band room, the library and outside in courtyards.

“I got these cute little decal stickers for the floor for the serving line area to try to prevent kids from clustering together in the line and to remain six feet apart. We have dots on seats for designated seating. For the most part, it’s been successful. Middle school down, we do breakfast in the classroom 100 percent. They come to school and we have different zones set up in the halls and the cafeteria so kids can grab a breakfast and take it to their classrooms. We’ve never done that in the past, but it’s a model that existed pre-pandemic. The whole idea behind it is for kids to be able to go play recess in the morning and not have to choose between recess and breakfast.

“For junior high and high school we don’t really feed a lot of kids before the bell, so there’s another program called Second Chance Breakfast where you set up zones in the hallway, and between first and second period, kids can come and pick up a breakfast. It’s essentially breakfast in the classroom but labeled as Second Chance Breakfast,” Strom said.

“Then we have kids that are 100 percent virtual. We provide bulk meals during the week, and we have flexible Fridays where classroom kids can opt to stay at home, so we’ve found ways to reach out and feed them as well. So we have probably 12 to 15 different feeding operations going on at one time every day,” Strom said. In years past, Strom said, the district had four different operations happening at once.

Strom said she thinks one of the reasons for the growth in demand is because of the high food quality.

“While we give kids some of their staple favorites like the hot and spicy chicken sandwich and chicken strips, we also make lasagna and we individualize it out and freeze it. I provide cooking instructions on everything for a microwave, stove-top and oven, along with an assortment of fresh vegetables, fruit and breakfast,” Strom said.

The district plans on doing the same thing for Christmas, Strom said, but they can only do one week at a time.

“The Friday before Christmas break, we’ll do meals for the first week. For the second week, I’ll have a crew come in on Monday and we’ll prep all day. On Tuesday we’ll pass out meals for the second week. … We will be doing a registration though,” Strom said.

The USDA granted a waiver in October to allow the feeding program to continue through the entire 2020-2021 school year. Free meals are available to all children at 90,000 sites around the country through June 2021. In late August, the USDA  extended child nutrition waivers through December 2020 based upon available funding at the time.

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