Student Nutrition fulfills need for NISD

Student Nutrition fulfills need for NISD
Posted on 04/28/2020
Student Nutrition fulfills need for NISD

Teresa Morales has been with Nacogdoches ISD Student Nutrition for 27 years. Peggy Thorn, for 30 years.

It’s likely they’ve never seen anything comparable to this.

Since March 16 – when NISD students were due to return from spring break, but didn’t – Morales, Thorn and their co-workers have been serving meals for children. First daily, and now, twice a week, with multiple meals provided at one time.

“We just do what we have to do,” Morales said after spending the morning preparing and packaging meals for distribution at NISD’s Central Kitchen located on Hughes Street near Thomas J. Rusk Elementary.

Thorn manages the cafeteria at Mike Moses Middle School, one of five locations currently being used for curbside pick-up.

“We practice our safety,” Thorn said over the telephone. “That’s gloves, masks and sanitizing. We definitely want to be safe for us and the parents.”

(This is not the first time NISD Student Nutrition has made adjustments to its meal program in response to a disaster. Less than three years ago, in 2017, NISD fed children escaping the Texas Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, for example.)

“The dedication of our student nutrition staff is off the charts,” said NISD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo. “I’ve visited these curbside pickup sites, and these employees are just to be commended for what they’re doing for the community.”

Whatever the average school day looks like for student nutrition staff, what’s taking place now is far from it.

“Lots of questions – and confusion – come from every direction,” said Robin Thacker, who’s in her 11th year as Director of Student Nutrition for the district. “Many things are put on hold right now... the only thing we all know for certain is that many of our students need our service.

“Parents are grateful and thankful that we are out on the front lines.”

The day begins, said Thacker, with her staff being monitored for fever using thermometers supplied by Mary Whitten, the district’s nurse.

From there, meals and packages are prepared for distribution. The department changed from daily service last to handing out meals twice a week to reduce chances for exposure for both NISD staff and the parents driving through the curbside pick-up line. The updated schedule – meals are available for pickup on Mondays and Wednesday – provides students with enough food to cover multiple days.

Texas Department of Agriculture no longer requires children to appear with parents to pick up food, but some sort of proof of student identification is required. To keep her staff from having to see, as well as touch, that identification each visit, Thacker devised a model that provides parents with a colored piece of paper to display while going through the pick-up line. That tells workers the identification has already been verified as well as how many meal packages are required for the family.

Both Thacker and Morales said parents are grateful for the help they’re receiving.

“It’s good for us to know that we are making a difference,” said Morales, manager at the Central Kitchen. “It assures us one thing about our job… it’s very needed right now.”

There’s no way staff can ignore the heightened risk associated with their new duties. While city and county officials in Nacogdoches urge everyone to stay home that can, Student Nutrition staff turn out daily to prepare meals.

“When you see the [COVID-19] numbers, you just pray that they start going down,” said Morales. “We just say, ‘let’s do what we have to do to be safe.’”

In the mornings, when returning to work, staff have started exchanging the greeting to “Blessed to be here,” Morales said. “And instead of ‘good evening,’ it’s ‘stay safe.’”

Since NISD’s initial school closure related to COVID-19 was announced last month – while students were still enjoying spring break – Student Nutrition staff have modified how food is distributed. For roughly a week, that included using mobile transportation (school buses and other district vehicles) at the end of March; that method was suspended after the city and county issued “Stay Home, Stay Safe” declarations.

On average, NISD is providing meals for 13,000 for students each week.

“There’s definitely the need for our students,” said Thorn, who’s been at Moses long enough to now have served multiple generations of Nacogdoches children.

Oddly, Thacker says the district’s current meal distribution program is much closer to what she’s always envisioned for a summer program.

“The way we are currently doing it seems to feed more kids than we do in the summer when the Summer School is no longer in session,” wrote Thacker. “In the summer we usually have to make kids eat at the location, and I think we all have thought this is really how we should do summer feeding.”

During the summer, the NISD’s award-winning meal program rotates around numerous locations in Nacogdoches, where TDA requires children to eat food on sight. Participation numbers the past few weeks have far exceeded anything that takes place during the summer.

“The kids are getting the food – and hunger is what we are fighting since it doesn’t take a break – not for summer and certainly not for COVID-19.”

No one’s sure how long this effort, in its current design, will carry on. NISD was scheduled to hold classes through May 28, when Student Nutrition would normally begin transitioning to a summer meal schedule. Gov. Greg Abbott announced April 17 that Texas public schools would remain closed through the end of the current academic year.

What the summer nutrition plan looks like in June remains to be seen, Thacker said. And while the uncertainty remains, Thacker, Morales and Thorn all praise the devotion and professionalism of NISD staff.

“We’re gung ho,” said Thorn, who’s spent 27 of her 30 years with NISD working at Mike Moses Middle School. “Everyone is wanting to step up; I have a dedicated group at Moses.”

Needless to say, that’s reassuring, Thacker said.

“I have a group of folks that are willing to come together for the greater needs of our students,” she said. “I do have the best group of folks, and I’m proud to be their leader through this event. I want to say ‘Thank you’ to them and their families.

“I hear laughing in the kitchen... and it makes me smile knowing that we can laugh even when we are in uncertain times.”

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