GCSD Meals Program Hasn't Missed A Beat During Pandemic

“Challenges are an opportunity to shine.”

It’s a favorite motto of Terry Marlow’s. It’s also a fitting reminder of how school lunch programs haven’t missed a beat providing nutritional meals for students and community children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Glenwood Community School District’s Director of Food Services, Marlow has spearheaded the complex and ever changing process of planning, preparing and providing meals to a 2,000-student district during the most challenging of times.

“It has been a challenge since March, but I feel like we’ve been shining,” said Marlow, in his 13th year as food services director for the district. “My team has been shining and they’re awesome. It feels like we’re a giant family that has come together to feed the community.”

The pandemic has at various times shuttered businesses, state buildings and schools throughout the country. This fall, with a second wave of the deadly virus surging in Iowa, cases are going up and school closings with it. With the cold winter months ahead, access to meals for students, who often get their most complete meal of the day at a school, is more important than ever.

School lunch programs have always been a complex balancing act of staffing, preparation and nutrition. That equation has only been complicated by the pandemic and the rising number of school closures due to outbreaks and quarantines.
Last spring, as Glenwood went to distance learning they began handing out sack lunches and breakfasts daily at West Elementary and the middle school. Since the spring, the district’s regular meals program expanded and over 110,000 meals were served.

This has easily been the most challenging time in Marlow’s tenure as food service director. Not that there’s hasn’t been other challenges.

“We went through the flood and we had no water – that was a challenge,” Marlow said, referring to the 2019 Missouri River flood that displaced hundreds and shutoff the city’s water supply for weeks. “That was a piece of cake compared to this.”

The biggest obstacle the food services program faces during these times, Marlow said, is the near constant, daily changes to the typical lunch routines in each building.

At the beginning of the school year, high school students were eating socially distanced in the cafeteria; at Northeast meals were delivered to classrooms; at West, students went to the cafeteria to pick up their meals but ate in classrooms; at the middle school, students ate at desks separated by six feet.

Each scenario means different logistics for staffing and health precautions for students and staff and how meals are prepared and delivered.

When the positive case numbers and the absenteeism brought on by quarantines rose and the district shifted to remote learning at Northeast Elementary and the high school beginning on Nov. 11, Marlow’s team began offering curbside meal pick-up for students.  He uses an online ordering system to verify students and estimate meal demand each day.
With the district moving to remote learning at both West Elementary and at the middle school last week, Marlow’s department pivoted once again. They began offering free curbside meals at the high school for all children in the community 18-and-under, regardless of where or if they attend school.

Glenwood’s “open site” meals program ended Tuesday, but if Glenwood were to continue in another district-wide remote learning phase beyond the scheduled Nov. 30 return to the buildings, the program would be reinstated. The “open site” meals program is federally-funded by the National School Lunch Program.

“When all the schools are out, the open site is there for all the kids,” he said. “But when we’re back in school, then my open site goes away.”

If Glenwood continues in remote learning in only a specific building, the district will continue to offer meals at the curbside site, but only to registered students from schools that are in remote-learning. Students names are verified and checked off a list to prevent duplicate meals. Marlow encourages families to participate in the meals program. It’s a judgment-free zone where all who need meals are welcome.

“I tell them this is like their own stimulus check, it’s their money, it’s federal money,” he said. “I don’t want people to feel ashamed or that it’s not for you because you’re not on the free or reduced lunch program. This is for everybody. This is the same as you getting that stimulus check. It’s a tax refund. It’s meals for all.”

In a typical day, Glenwood would serve about 1,400 meals a day. Marlow estimates they are handing out 400 meals a day at the curbside pick-up. The hot lunches also include a breakfast for the following morning.

“One of the things I just love is when you’re handing out a meal to the parents in the car and you see a little kid in the back and they look at you and they hear what they’re being served and they get all giddy,” he said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”

Marlow’s team is still serving meals to APEX – the district’s alternative school – Kids Place, the YMCA and a few area daycares, but they have largely consolidated their work to the curbside pick-ups.

“Every day it’s escalating, we went from about 150 meals a day to 250 to now 400,” he said. “And as the word gets out, we expect more.”

Every day is a guessing game: how many will show up? Will we have enough meals? Have we followed all of our safety protocols?

“You can’t really know if everyone who came the day before is going to come the next day,” Marlow said. “Sometimes it depends on what the menu item would be.”

Chicken drummies was a popular meal last week. Hot dogs the next day was less so.

“You never know,” he said. “That makes it hard to prepare. And when we don’t have the registration and we’re doing the open site, it makes it harder to prepare. Our biggest challenge right now is we’re not 100 percent sure we’ll go back Nov. 30. There’s a chance we could stay remote which means we have to order for food two different ways. That’d difficult because we don’t just order the food the day before. We have to order our food a week out. We’re having to alternate our menu a lot.”

Down the road, Marlow said there’s a chance the curbside pick-up could be moved from the high school to the middle school to take advantage of that building’s covered front entrance – in case of inclement weather – and the kitchen’s closer proximity to the main doors.

Marlow coordinates a staff of 23, a tight knit, dedicated group that operates less as a department than a family.
Keeping everyone safe and delivering meals to students these last nine months hasn’t been easy on any of them. During the pandemic, Marlow has tried to keep the kitchen staff as separated as possible, bringing them together only at service time and always in PPE.

This fall, he’s segregated each group into assembly line-like units. One kitchen will do the cooking while another the vegetable prep and another the salad bagging and then it’s all brought together at one location with the main course for packing. It’s a complicated dance, he said, performed by a staff he can’t help but routinely call “awesome.”

“My staff has been awesome,” he said. “They have kept a positive attitude and they know they’re doing something great for the kids. They love seeing the kids and they miss them.

“They truly are essential workers and they get overlooked. I have the most awesome team and we work really well together. I wish they got more kudos for what they do. People forget how essential they are, how many thousands of meals they serve. They’re definitely essential.”

The Opinion-Tribune

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