School lunches still happening during the pandemic, “they just look a little different”

Before the pandemic, Nicole Skrzypek loved lunchtime at school when she could eat and hang out in the cafeteria with her friends between classes.

“Now things are definitely different,” Skrzypek, a sophomore at DeKalb High School, said. “I miss seeing my friends, lunchtime really isn’t the same.”

On Thursday, Feb. 11, Skrzypek attended a drive-thru meal pickup at DeKalb High School that provided breakfast and lunch meals for a week for herself and her brother, who is in the eighth grade.

“It’s nice to be able to get two meals a day, even though we’re e-learning,” Skrzypek said. “It’s a whole week of meals, and it allows us to not be hungry and keep our minds on schoolwork.”

On Oct. 9, the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended flexibilities in its Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option through June 30. The extended flexibilities allow schools and other sites to continue to provide meals at no cost to all children age 18 and younger through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

All children qualify to receive free meals through the program, which is sponsored by the USDA and the Illinois State Board of Education.

Nicole Stuckert, assistant superintendent for business services for Sycamore Community School District 427, described the program, which provides free breakfast and lunch meals, as “a great program that helps all children in the community.”

Stuckert said that since March, District 427 has served hundreds of thousands of meals.

“We have continuously adapted the service mode as needed to provide meals to all children,” Stuckert said. “Whether it is meals delivered to homes by school district staff, curbside pickup for remote learners, as well as weekend and holidays meals, our goal is to feed as many children as possible so that they may concentrate on learning.”

Mike Chamness, DeKalb School District 428’s food service manager, described the meal program as a way to provide “free meals for every child in the community 18 years of age and younger, regardless of their meal eligibility status and whether or not they attend one of our district schools.”

Although both DeKalb and Sycamore school districts offer both breakfast and lunch free seven days a week, staff said that the number of meals provided has decreased since the pandemic began.

“Normally, we distribute 5,000 meals a day, and now we average a little more than 1,000 a day,” Chamness said. “We have served more than 145,000 meals already this school year.”

Stuckert credits the decline in number to some families having time conflicts picking up meals. At the start of the pandemic, the Sycamore School District delivered meals with the school bus routes, but since the start of hybrid learning, bus delivery has stopped.

In the Sycamore School District, elementary school students eat lunch in the cafeteria during the two days a week they have in-person learning. They are given meals to take home when they do e-learning. Middle school and high school students, students who have opted for fully remote learning, and all other children, including those too young for school or who are home-schooled, are given meals weekly via drive-thru pickup.

In the DeKalb School District, most students had fully remote learning, though the district is just this month phasing grades back into classrooms, parents can place an order for a weekly pickup online at Meal pickup is Wednesdays and Thursdays at district schools at specific times for each location.

Staff at both DeKalb and Sycamore school districts describe the meals’ menu as nutritious, kid-friendly favorites. The meals’ entrees are frozen and ready for heating, either in an oven or microwave.

“The meals offer the same components as if the students were in our buildings eating, they just look a little different,” Stuckert said. “We have hot dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, as well as fresh fruit, milk, juice and vegetables.”

Chamness described the meals as “mostly shelf-stable items and frozen items that are reheatable.”

“The meals are nutritious and well-balanced, helping energize and recharge the students when they’re hungry,” said Kayla Foster, Aramark Food Service Director of DeKalb School District.

Foster is a registered dietician and has created recipe cards for fun and creative ways for students to eat their school meals. Ideas include creating a “snowman” using powdered doughnuts, raisins and toothpicks, and a Cat in the Hat-themed pizza for Dr. Seuss’ birthday.

“We like to offer new menu items to keep kids excited and looking forward to their meals,” she said. “New items include chocolate chip pancakes and galaxy deep dish pizza.”

Chamness said that his staff has had to adapt to many changes since the pandemic began.

“We changed our entire food service operation in a matter of a few short days to ensure the children in our community continued to have access to nutritious meals during the pandemic,” Chamness said.

Foster credits the school district’s distribution team and food service team for making sure meal packs are complete, helping feed the children of the community.

“They work in prepping, packaging and assembling the meal packs to be able to distribute to the community,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.