While dressed up in an inflatable dinosaur costume, Shelly Diaz handed out menus to families driving through the Live Oak Unified School District’s meal distribution.
Diaz, a cook at Live Oak Middle School who helps organize the free meal distribution offered at Live Oak High School, said she dresses up in a different costume almost every day both for the families that drive through and for her own enjoyment.
“I’m a kid at heart, I like being able to express myself and have fun with it,” Diaz said. “... It’s for (the families) but it’s really rewarding for me, too. I have kids that will come through that dress up, too. It’s one of those things that can make your heart happy and if I can make somebody’s day a little bit better, I know it’s hard times for some people, it just makes me feel good.”
A number of local school districts have been offering free meals while schools have been closed to in-person instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Leasa Hill, student nutrition director for Live Oak Unified School District, said they serve about 2,200 meals per day – numbers for the district have remained pretty consistent, she said.
Hill said one of the challenges they’ve faced has been purchasing supplies – in part because sometimes supplies can be more difficult to come by and because buying prepackaged food is more expensive – she said they made several of their food items at the schools from scratch prior to the closure.
One of the other challenges has been having enough staff, but Hill said Superintendent Mathew Gulbrandsen helped gather teachers, administrators and even transportation and maintenance workers to help pitch in with various tasks.
“This brings (the students) happiness, they’re seeing someone they’ve seen five days a week. In their little world, that’s been taken away,” Hill said. “... We’re embracing this wholeheartedly and taking this as if every person who comes through is one of our students.”
Hill said they’re waiting for approval from the California Department of Education for their summer meal program but they plan to offer meal distribution through July 3.
Amber Watson, director of nutrition services at Marysville Joint Unified School District, said they’ve seen ups and downs in their meal distribution numbers but right now, they’re seeing a downward trend.
Watson said their peak was on April 30 when they served about 13,000 meals.
Typically, Watson said the end of the month drives participation for their meal service because some families may be running out of money for groceries.
She said there is now a Pandemic EBT (electronic benefits transfer) to help families with school-aged children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches to purchase groceries while schools are closed.
Watson said she thinks that has brought some relief for families.
She said some families are receiving the EBT card for the funding automatically but those who don’t receive it automatically can apply starting Friday, May 22, by visiting www.cdss.ca.gov.
One of the challenges Watson said the district has faced is predicting the number of meals they will distribute each day because they don’t want to over produce but they also don’t want to run out of food.
Watson said that she’s hoping to continue meal service in the summer but it’s unknown what the workforce will look like at this point – staff’s last day is June 5.
Chelsey Slattery, director of nutrition, purchasing and warehousing for Yuba City Unified School District, said the district has been serving between 4,100 and 5,000 meals each day.
Slattery said since the district started offering weekend meals, they’re seeing a decrease in participation on Mondays and Tuesdays – she said the reasoning behind that is unknown – but toward the end of the week, participation tends to increase.
She said when they do promotions through the district’s Facebook page they also see an increase in participation.
“We have a really great staff that are happy to be out there serving the community,” Slattery said.
She said the plan is to start the summer food service program on June 8 – there won’t be a break in service – and it will run through Aug. 7 (excluding July 3, however, meals for that day will be sent home the day before).
“We just want to encourage families to keep coming out and picking up their meals each day,” Slattery said.