All Westerville City Schools students eligible for free breakfast, lunch through end of school year

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
Jennifer Gillespie, a food-services worker at Pointview Elementary School, organizes bags filled with food for families at Westerville City Schools' drive-thru meal pickup Dec. 5.

Westerville City Schools students still may receive a free lunch and breakfast through the end of this school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended flexibilities in its Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option through June 30 to allow schools and other sites to continue to provide meals at no cost to all children, according to the USDA website: usda.gov

The department previously extended free meals through December 2020, based on funding available at the time, but was able to extend throughout the entire 2020-21 school year through a continuing resolution signed into law by former President Donald Trump on Oct. 1, 2020, according to the USDA.

Kari Dennis, Westerville schools director of human resources and food services, said the district has been communicating continually with families regarding the free meals.

“It’s not quite to an average school-year participation, with only half the kids in,” she said. “It’s a constant, consistent message sharing. We have our paraprofessionals sharing the information. We communicate, communicate and communicate some more.”

Westerville students are scheduled to return to in-person classes beginning March 8, except Westerville Virtual Academy students.

Robert White, a food-services worker at Blendon Middle School, stacks crates filled with bags of milk for families at Westerville City Schools' drive-thru meal pickup Dec. 5.

Even with students fully returning, Dennis said, meal options will be left open, and parents may go to the district web site at wcsoh.org/Content/41472 to opt in. 

To receive free meals during virtual instruction, families need to complete the Westerville City Schools Opt-In Form for Weekly Meal Bags.

Dennis said Virtual Academy students receive message blasts via school messenger about meals.

“Whether by school or WVA, we can send a contact for each student,” she said. “It’s not tracking the person but helps us prepare the correct amount of meals.”

Dennis said breakfast is grab-and-go at all buildings. 

“Students come in a building and grab a breakfast that is a complete meal that meets national school guidelines so we don’t have a gathering,” she said. “It’s a traditional lunch service, so students can pick the items they want for lunch that meet the guidelines. It’s just free. The POS (point of sale) helps with inventory. Students can still buy a la carte.”

Dennis said the meal service looks normal when they’re in schools building.  

“We do still have students who will bring their own food, which is fine,” she said. “The important thing is to let them know it’s available to them. Some students prefer to pack. It’s typical; some students don’t like the line or what’s on the menu. Everyone has a personal preference.”

For lunches, Dennis said, schools definitely stick with favorites and what students know. 

“Our meals reflect their favorite items,” she said. “We’ve had problems with vendor availability. Companies are struggling with the same staffing issues. Sometimes products aren’t available to us.”

Dennis said the middle and high schools offer a wide meal variety whereas the elementary school favorites include walking tacos, pizza, chicken nuggets and corndogs.

“Breakfast for lunch is always a fan favorite,” she said. “At the elementary, it’s the most popular, but we offer it for all.”

Dennis said lunch has to meet standards, including a main item (protein and grain), veggies and or fruit and milk.

From an operations standpoint, she said, the challenge has been the inability to see the future. 

“We’re used to feeding kids. It’s what we do,” she said. “When we get into our routines, we know what we’re doing. It’s just not knowing what’s coming. If we have to go to a day fully remote or even if the weather (causes delays or cancellations), it’s not being able to see what’s coming and having to adjust quickly. 

“If you have a desire to feed children, the unanticipated changes can weigh on you.”

Dennis said the district has been doing Saturday morning pickups for online learners. 

“We do one location out of our high school because of our volume,” she said. “To pack five breakfasts and lunches takes space. We’re doing that out of Westerville South. It has appropriate storage facilities. In the beginning, when fully remote, it was several locations. Then families weren’t sure where they should pick up. Having a single site prevents some of the confusion.”

Some meal bags were sent home with students in blended-learning model or a parent could pick up the meals if a student were walking.

“We’ve had some of those families saying it’s too much for a kid to bring home and they did pickup,” Dennis said. “Everyone’s needs are constantly changing. It’s a nutritionally balanced meal. It’s the food they recognize from the school day even if at home.”

Westerville food services awarded for work

Westerville City Schools has received the Children’s Hunger Alliance Child Nutrition Award for the food-services department’s work in feeding students during the pandemic. 

“We appreciate that Westerville City Schools served over 500,000 meals since the pandemic started, ensuring kids had nutritious meals that met nutrition standards and addressed issues of food insecurity,” said Rick Oxley, manager of school and summer nutrition at the Children’s Hunger Alliance. 

Westerville is the only one in Franklin County to receive the honor.

Sheila Miller, a food-services worker at Heritage Middle School, greets families during Westerville City Schools' drive-thru meal pickup Dec. 5.

“I was surprised,” Dennis said. “This is the work we do every day. There was never a question for us about feeding kids during a pandemic; it was just how we were going to do it. It’s an honor to be recognized for the work that we do every day, especially during this time. It means a great deal to my staff – the ones who are doing the work – to know how hard they have worked is recognized and appreciated by the community.”

Oxley presented two certificates to Dennis and district leaders Feb. 11, one recognizing food-services workers for providing meals during the pandemic and the other recognizing district leaders for coordinating a pandemic feeding response.

Children’s Hunger Alliance is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hunger in Ohio.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla