Hidden Heroes: Sometimes La Crosse superheroes wear aprons

Hidden Heroes: Sometimes La Crosse superheroes wear aprons

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Imagine packing 1,300 school lunches every day.

Then add 1,200 breakfast meals to it. Then triple it on Fridays.

That’s about 17,500 meals packed and delivered every week by nutrition workers in the La Crosse School District, and 140,000 since March 18 when Gov. Tony Evers ordered schools to close.

Stacked end on end, the meals would reach beyond the stratosphere, space largely reserved for superheroes. That seems fitting, however, because the work of the district’s school nutrition team reveals that sometimes heroes come in aprons.

La Crosse School District Nutrition Specialist Marilyn Volden remembers news of the order arriving the afternoon of Friday the 13th, an appropriately ominous date.

The quick decision gave her team just three business days to figure out how to continue feeding breakfast and lunch to the 4,000-plus students who rely on the nutrition program and who would soon scatter to neighborhoods throughout the city.

“While we thought the order would be in place a couple of weeks, we didn’t know what to expect,” Volden said. “That’s been the pattern throughout all of this — more questions than answers. We decided early on to make decisions as best we can as the situation played out.”

Worried about the children’s isolation as much as their rumbling stomachs, about 40 workers came forward wanting to be part of the effort.

From experience, they knew they could handle the meal preparation, massive as it was. But they still had to figure out how to quickly and safely package the food (individually packing and sealing each serving of each dish) and distribute it to the kids at or near their homes.

A grant from the La Crosse Area Emergency Response Fund allowed the team to purchase sealing machines, enabling fast, secure packaging and the ability to distribute foods that could be reheated. (The machines will also be important post-pandemic as added lunchroom precautions will likely call for additional packaging.)

And without kids to transport to school, GO Riteway Transportation quickly partnered with nutrition staff to develop 10 routes for 10 buses each to hit three stops between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. every weekday.

As a bonus, each of the buses carries Wi-Fi. They remain at each meal distribution point for 30 minutes, so students who don’t have home internet access can bring their devices to download school work and check in with teachers.

To minimize exposure to the coronavirus, the same team works together at the same prep site each day while wearing masks and social distancing. They also limit prep sites to four, including one at Logan Middle School, Logan High School, Spence Elementary and Southern Bluffs Elementary.

Once the meals are safely packed in coolers and placed in the buses, two nutrition staff climb aboard to share delivery duties, including setting up the meals so children can take them without breaching the six-foot rule and keeping records.

The records are important and were especially critical in the early stages of the program because there’s no signup for the program. Staff simply make their best guesses as to how many meals are needed at each site each day, and two vans serve as runners to replenish supplies as day-to-day numbers fluctuate.

“We have new rules with COVID-19,” Volden said. “We don’t have to look at eligibility where we’re distributing food. Any time school is not in session (whatever the season), we can offer meals under the Summer Food Service Program. Any child 18 and under is eligible.”

Volden’s team also set up a call center for families to use if they can’t get to a pickup site. For those situations, volunteers will deliver the children’s meals to their homes. Volden said they deliver directly to as many as 65 homes each day.

As the “safer at home” order stretched on, the nutrition team decided to add weekend meals, meaning that during their Friday stops, they would provide lunch for Friday, Saturday and Sunday and breakfast for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

On the first day of that service, April 24, the teams delivered 9,100 meals.

As with other agencies noted in previous Hidden Heroes stories, community partnerships have added fuel to drive the program.

When the market for Superior Fresh, an organic farm in Hixton, Wisconsin, waned due to the pandemic, the family farm contacted the nutrition program to distribute produce to families.

Grow La Crosse has been giving families seedlings to begin growing their own produce.

And when the regularly scheduled service with GO Riteway ends on June 5, volunteers from the YMCA, Salvation Army and the community will step in to ensure meal deliveries continue.

There’s no mandate for the nutrition program to continue feeding the children. Rather, the district’s nutrition program is choosing to do the extra work.

“The reality of children going hungry was a concern before all of this. This has just enhanced our concerns about the struggles the families are going through,” Volden said. “With the staff that we have and the interactions they have with the children every day, the stories they hear, the worries they have about food insecurity, it was never a question of if we were going to do it; it was only a question of how.”

The nutrition team misses the daily interaction and relationships they’ve developed with the children, she said. “In a small way, this serves as a daily connection with the children. It may not be the same person, but it’s a connection to the school.”

Like nearly every other school staff or faculty member, Volden hopes children can safely return to school this fall. And when they do, the nutrition team will be ready — aprons on.

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