Q&A with Beth Brewster, Supervisor of Food Services for Caroline County Public Schools in Maryland
We spoke with Beth about pivoting the district’s school food operations during COVID, implementing scratch cooking, and advice she has for other school districts striving to serve healthy food to kids.
ScratchWorks: How have your operations in Caroline County changed in the year since COVID hit?
Beth Brewster: In the spring of 2020, we went totally mobile. We started out with curbside pick-up and delivery into neighborhoods, but realized we could hit more kids by going door to door. We were serving 2,000 kids a day door to door, with three meals a day. This continued throughout last spring and continued in the summer of 2020. We didn’t have CACFP for dinner during the summer time, but we did do breakfast and lunch 6 days a week. We also continued the backpack program to get kids through the weekends. We put together some frozen dinners so that kids could heat them instead of just cold or individually wrapped items, and we put a lot of local produce into meals because we processed over 20,000 lbs. of local produce in the summer.
Our district is currently in a hybrid, AABB model for in-person learning, so we just recently stopped doing door to door. Parents of kids who are still virtual pick up food from their closest school. We’re also serving 350 seniors per week with 5 days of meals. We have one school that produces senior meals only, and one main distribution kitchen. Another kitchen just produces fresh fruit and produce, including cutting up, bagging, and sending to the main distribution site. And we have one kitchen that’s just making supper meals.
SW: A lot of school food programs have seen decreased participation over the past year. What creative strategies have you implemented in Caroline Country to try to feed as many students as possible? Have you tried any innovative approaches to engage your school and community?
BB: We would serve about 3,800 kids for breakfast and lunch each day before COVID hit. Now, we’re down to 2,000 kids, and we really had to build that up. Going door to door definitely helped; we also had marquees displaying “Free Lunches” at all the schools. There’s an application online that parents fill out so we can track. We marketed pretty well, and we also marketed local food pantries. For example, we would include information about where there were pop-up food pantries and send them out with messaging and instructions.
SW: How has your labor budget been affected by COVID? Have you had to cut staff, or have you been able to find work for everyone?
BB: We did not cut anybody, and actually my ladies who don’t work during the summer did because of the intensity of what we were doing and the need. As people have left just by natural circumstances, we haven’t filled their positions. Obviously in the fall we’re not at a break even point with what we’re doing. I think in the fall I’ll start interviewing for May or June of next year. We’ll hire people for summer feeding, processing of local produce, and producing when we’re not in school.
SW: We have come so far with scratch cooking over the past few years, but many programs have had to turn to processed foods in order to meet the challenge of COVID. What advice can you offer to programs that want to start implementing a scratch-cook model again?
BB: We phase it in with a couple of scratch cooked meals a week. We froze fresh vegetables to make stir fry. It seems like a daunting task, but it really can be done if you have everything in its place and the tools to be successful.
I do think taking it on every day isn’t our model, but 2-3 times a week when we’re in normal times will be much easier. After the pandemic, everything else is going to seem much easier. It definitely pushed us to know what we can do. We’re including scratch cooking in our frozen meals; we already had a sealer because we started sending them home to our highest needs kids that they could heat up. We learned we can crank out 2,000 frozen meals a day now.
SW: The end of this school year is now in sight. Do you expect to keep feeding kids through the summer? What are your plans for summer feeding?
BB: We don’t know to be quite honest. We’re waiting to see if our parks and recreation partners will have summer camps and open sites. We usually have 10 community partners, so we’re struggling with waiting for other organizations to say where they’re going to be too. All schools are supposed to be open for summer school. We just got a small bus so we can have a mobile pantry and serve summer meals, going into lower-income neighborhoods without fresh food access. I don’t think we’ll go back to door to door feeding because it was so expensive and hard to schedule. We’ll probably go the route of schools being open sites and taking the mobile bus and refrigerator vans into neighborhoods.
SW: The USDA recently announced that they have extended the Universal Free Meals waiver through the end of September, but many school food professionals are concerned about pivoting their programs again in the middle of the school year when it expires. What are your thoughts on the situation? How are you preparing your program for that possibility?
BB: How do you message that? How do you say, “Everybody’s free until the end of September,” and then all of a sudden they have a balance? Then we’re switching from the summer meal program back to NSLP; we train kids on how they don’t have to take milk during the school year but during the summer they do. My guess is that we’ll probably make the decision to go back to NSLP at the start of school for consistency.
I have two elementary schools eligible for CEP, one that’s only at 65% reimbursement and another at 90%. There’s 75% participation at that school, and the kids that need it are using it. How do you justify that when they go to middle school, food isn’t free anymore?
SW: Is there anything else you’d like the school food community to know?
BB: I just think that the local piece is so important—for school systems to connect with their farmers and look outside of the box. We started a program two years ago processing blueberries and getting commodity blueberries; we had a local baker making 3,800 muffins for us a month. My staff got to work that summer, and it was like a mortgage for that small business. We also buy apples from a local orchard, which is one line item for me and several thousand dollars for her. It’s a huge help in feeding the local economy.
We can do it. It’s harder work, but it’s worth it.