BOLD Schools food service staff on front lines daily, serving 1,000 meals to go
BOLD food service staff found themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with little warning, but workers have stepped up to the challenge. The crew distributes more than 1,000 meals a day to young people in the district's boundaries.
OLIVIA — Margaret Flemming had an inkling of what was coming as she watched the news one fateful weekend in the middle of March.
A phone call to Superintendent Dale Brandsoy confirmed it.
Flemming, the food service director for the BOLD Schools, learned that she and her staff were now responsible for putting together and distributing prepackaged breakfasts and lunches for all of the district’s students and children ages 2-18, all of the K-8 students from St. Mary’s Catholic School in Bird Island, as well as eight child care centers located within the district that serves the communities of Bird Island, Lake Lillian and Olivia.
The first three days were chaos, she admits.
Essentially from day one, Flemming and her staff have been serving 520 breakfasts and 520 lunches each weekday. That's 1,040 meals a day, for a running total that now exceeds 37,000. School enrollment is around 650, so the current meal numbers are a tall order for a small district, Flemming said.
She and her staff take on the task each morning with this mindset: “You’ve got to hit the ground running and you just have to keep going ‘cause there is some little child and some big child out there counting on you to help their day be a better day,” Flemming said.
“We never know what (is thappening in the next person’s) life or in their home, and we should never judge people by thinking they don’t need this because you don’t know who needs it or doesn’t,” she added.
She has 17 years of experience in food service with the district, the last 15 as its director. Until now, she had a staff of four in Olivia and three in Bird Island. They focused on scratch cooking at each site, treating the elementary students at Bird Island and the upper grade students at Olivia to hot meals and baked treats.
Now they have to rely more on packaged food items, but don’t shirk from putting together sandwiches and ready-to-go meals to please anyone. Besides cereal and breakfast bars, breakfasts have included specials like egg and cheese on English muffins, French toast with hash browns and sausage links and cinnamon rolls. Lunches have included build-your-own pizza, taco in a bag, grilled cheese sandwiches, barbecues and spaghetti meals.
Two volunteers and staff from St. Mary’s are part of the expanded crew. The operations are centralized in the high school cafeteria in Olivia. The first workers arrive before the sun peeks above the horizon. Shortly before 11:30 a.m., the workers disperse to eight different locations in the district where they distribute the meals they have put together all morning.
The distribution sites include the two school campuses, parks in Olivia, Bird Island and Lake Lillian, and the Norfolk Township Hall.
This is the fun part. The staff members reach the sites as parents drive up in cars, and in one case on a tractor, and as kids with backpacks arrive on their bicycles.
“It’s so fun to see the smiles on their faces,” said Flemming. “From the youngest to the oldest, they say thank you when they come to pick up their meals.”
Said Flemming of the job today: “It brings tears to your eyes of sadness and joy.”
The food service workers have yet to hear a complaint. The walls of their makeshift assembly line in the cafeteria are lined by the handmade “thank you” notes from the children they serve. One high school senior came to the high school distribution site during National Food Service Week in a superhero costume, just to show her appreciation.
Flemming never saw any of this coming until the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March. Now, she doesn’t want to think what it would be like if she and her staff were not operating with the urgency they do.
“I think it would be sad out there right now if we weren’t doing this,” she said. “I think a lot of children would be going without meals until mom and dad got home to feed them at night.”
“I think this has just been a blessing for so many parents. It’s a stress lifted off their shoulders knowing that there will be something for their children to eat,” she said.
Of course, she misses seeing the children in the school cafeterias that they once filled with chatter and laughter.
“You miss seeing ‘em every day, and saying ‘hi,’ asking them how they are doing,” said Flemming. “You don’t get to do that now and (you) wonder how many are missing that connection too because they’re home and they’re not getting out to meet people.”
It’s been especially hard not being able to say goodbye to the seniors, said Flemming. It’s been a school tradition to designate a week in May where seniors are treated to their favorite meals at the school cafeteria. This year, she’s designated May 21 as the date to honor the students.
She’s sent out an email survey asking seniors to select their favorite all-time school lunch. They can drive up to receive it May 21. When interviewed earlier this month, she was guessing it would be orange chicken with a Caesar salad.
As for her own staff, Flemming describes them as nothing less than “amazing.” She can’t imagine how any of this could be possible without their dedication.
It would be easy to feel mad about being thrust on to the front lines so unexpectedly, she acknowledged. No one feels that way, she said.
“I look at it as you are doing a service for your community. You think of all the good we’re doing and the people we’re helping and this is what this is all about: Helping people through this time,” she said.