Suddenly serving up thousands of pick-up meals with a smile

Gladys Townsend, an administrator at Kelloggsville Middle School rolling the big black bins ready to be packed

What does it take to pivot a school district food service operation almost overnight from serving students in their buildings to serving them and their families via curbside pick-up?

It’s a question Kelloggsville food service director Brenda Jansen never really thought she’d need to answer.

But in mid-March, she, and thousands of other school food service directors across Michigan, had to adjust their normal operations to respond when Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered all schools to close for at least three weeks because of COVID-19.

Kelloggsville High School teacher Tina Easterly ties plastic bags full of food closed prior to putting them into the big black bins

During a regular school year, Jansen supervises 26 food service workers in seven different buildings in the Kelloggsville district, as well as four parochial schools in the area. It’s not a job for the faint of heart.

“I do all the menu planning,” Jansen said. “I monitor all the food service equipment, checking them for needed repair, as well as evaluating the need for and procuring additional equipment. With my wonderful assistant, Janet Dusendang, we work together to procure all of the food purchases through Gordon Food Service. She helps with production records and works closely with our kitchen managers to figure out how much of everything to order.”

Jansen says that on a typical day in the school year, the Kelloggsville food service team serves about 1,250 breakfasts per day and another 2,100 lunches per day.

So, when Jansen heard that schools were being closed by the governor, her first reaction: “I knew that we would have to step up in some way to continue to feed the students in our district,” she said. Case closed.

But that decision, Jansen says, was relatively easy. Executing it has been more challenging.

On a Dead Run from the Minute They Arrive

Though a smile seems to be ever-present on her face, in a quiet moment at Kelloggsville High School, Jansen admitted: “Honestly, it has been very hectic. We had just received a delivery of food and supplies for the regular school menu we had planned. We had to scramble to switch it up and order in things for grab-and-go breakfast and lunch.

East Elementary teacher Kerri Kazmierski, left, and East Elementary counselor Lori Roberts work to get plastic bags ready to be packed with food for families, including applesauce, veggies, mac and cheese, granola bars and more

“We have experienced some difficulties with sourcing some of the items we want, so we have to continually be checking stock and changing our plans on the fly. We are on a dead run from the minute we arrive in the morning. It is very different from a normal school day.”

Indeed, on a recent day at the high school, the kitchen and prep areas were buzzing. Jansen supervised a make-shift but efficient team made up of some food service workers and a variety of teachers, counselors and administrators. These staff members had volunteered to spend the 3-4 hours it would take to prep the food to be provided in front of the high school.

“It takes a small army,” Jansen said with a laugh. “About 20 volunteers.”

‘Thinking About My Students’

One such volunteer was Lori Roberts, a counselor at East Kelloggsville Elementary School.

Kelloggsville food service’s Nicole Postma opening a box of applesauce

“The closure has weighed on my heart,” she said. “I have particularly been thinking about my students I supported on a regular basis. The majority of Kelloggsville students rely on eating two meals a day at school. I was concerned that parents didn’t have a notice about the shutdown, let alone have time and perhaps even the resources to feed their children. So, when this chance came up to help in this area, I was excited to help.”

She explained a spreadsheet was sent out to all the staff in the district giving them a chance to help. “It was truly awesome to see the need filled within a very short period of time.”

On the day that Roberts volunteered, she was part of an assembly-line process that resulted in 510 bags of food distributed, including two breakfasts and two lunches for each child. This represented just over 2,000 meals.

“The first day we did this, we handed out 332 bags,” Jansen said, “and it has been increasing every day.”

Back in the kitchen volunteers are prepping carrots and celery for the assembly line in the Cafe

Volunteers make the difference for families

“Families have been very appreciative of our efforts,” Jansen said. “We are handing out as many as 6-8 bags per car with some families carpooling and others picking up meals for neighborhood kids as well as their own.”

Jansen added that seeing how the Kelloggsville community has stepped up also has been one of the best parts of a situation that she never imagined.

“I am so proud of each and every volunteer that shows up,” she said. “We appreciate their help more than we can express. And the most impressive thing is that they show up again and again. And they have a smile on their face while doing it. We have a great bunch of staff at Kelloggsville.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio or email Phil.

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