Standing six feet apart in an empty school kitchen, seven staffers spend their days preparing thousands of meals for students stuck at home as a result of the shutdown of schools caused by coronavirus.
On March 13, with the threat of COVID-19 looming over New York, the Ithaca City School District was forced to close all schools, asking its 5,464 students to stay at home. Following the closures, Superintendent Luvelle Brown assured the community that, in addition to providing technical support and virtual learning, the district would be providing food service to students.
Beth Krauss, food service director for the district, was already one step ahead. Four days before the first school breakfast was delivered, she had a plan in place to provide students with meals, ensuring a smooth transition amid the chaos of nationwide shutdowns.
“The waiver was put in with the state [and] the food was already delivered. We had food in-house, ready to go,” Krauss said.
Starting on March 16, meals were available for all students Monday through Friday in the parking lots and bus loops at six different schools throughout the district.
After the first COVID-19 case was confirmed within the Ithaca community, however, the district quickly adopted a delivery-only program for meals to ensure the best social distancing practices possible. As of March 24, all meals are now being delivered to students’ homes.
Krauss estimates that the district is now delivering approximately 1,600 lunches and 1,000 breakfasts each day, despite a small number of cafeteria staff.
“We only have seven people preparing lunches because of social distancing in the kitchen,” Krauss explained. “We take temperatures. They are sanitizing with a timer, so every time the timer goes off, every half hour to an hour they completely sanitize light switches, door handles, any surface that they’re working on.”
Once the meals are prepared and put in coolers, a team of 10 bus drivers deliver the meals to 686 homes throughout Ithaca. Each bus driver is paired with a kitchen staff member who delivers each meal to the door. Families are instructed not to meet the delivery person at the door.
“It’s a lot of heavy lifting,” Krauss said. “Because coolers are heavy with milk and the breakfasts and the bags … it’s a process.”
In order to receive meals, families fill out a weekly order form for each child. Breakfast meals consist of milk, juice, graham crackers and a different cereal each day. For lunch, students can choose either a sandwich or the daily lunch option, accompanied by fruit, milk and sometimes salad.
While the outbreak of COVID-19 has generated widespread anxiety for all of Ithaca, the ICSD is doing its best to ensure that concerns over access to meals does not add to families’ burdens.
“The food service staff, the clerk staff, the transportation staff, they really have to work together to pull this all off,” Krauss said. “They’re just awesome [for] doing it.”