Schools in Buncombe County welcome students back this week for the first time since December. Those who have not opted for all remote instruction will be in-class in-person two days a week. Preparation for their return extends beyond the classroom.
“It looks like we’re going to be serving a buncombe burger.”
Christina Dougherty is the manager at the Leicester Elementary School Cafeteria.
“With crispy crinkle fries and assorted fresh fruits that’ll be different in every school.”
Students returning to the classroom creates a big shift for her small staff of three.
“So definitely the layout of our kitchen has changed for this quite a bit,” Dougherty said.
Since Christmas, Buncombe County Schools students have been completely remote due to the pandemic. During that time, Dougherty’s staff hand-packed hundreds of breakfasts and lunches in brown paper bags to distribute.
“We provide them with their silverware. We provide them with their condiments. We typically have one bag for cold items, one bag for hot. We definitely want to give them the best quality meal that we can,” Dougherty said.
These meals are still available curbside on certain days of the week at any Buncombe County Schools cafeteria. Lisa Payne is the school nutrition director for Buncombe County. She says anybody in the community with children under the age of eighteen can grab one. No strings attached.
“We don’t identify. We don’t ask any questions. We’re just feeding children,” Payne said.
Feeding children at no cost to the family.
When students eat, the cafeteria takes a count. This count helps cafeterias get reimbursed for costs from the state and federal department of Health and Human Services.
The more meals, the higher the count, the more funding a cafeteria can receive to continue operations.
One mother wanted to come pick up meals, but she was worried about having to identify herself.
“We’re not going to force you to identify yourself. And if you don’t come, we won’t work. Because we need that revenue, we need that revenue to pay our staff and we need that revenue to buy the food to pay for the children's food. So it was very touching to me that my manager said, if you come and feed your children, then I'm able to feed my children. Everyone 0 to 18 can eat with us,” Payne said.
Since March 16 of last year, Buncombe County schools have served 2.4 million to-go meals. The demand has kept them from laying anybody off according to Payne.
Cleaning procedures haven’t had to change much either.
“We were prepared for norovirus, we were prepared for foodborne illness outbreak, we were prepared for the flu,” Payne said.
Under the county’s plan B, students come to school in cohorts.
At Leicester, students in cohort A will eat in their classrooms on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoon, they have the option to take home a meal kit for Wednesday through Sunday.
Students in cohort B come on Thursday and Friday. On Friday afternoon, they have the option to bring home a meal kit for Saturday through Wednesday.
Meal kits contain fresh items as well as frozen items with reheating instructions.
“What I like about that is we actually have students going, ‘Oh I recognize the milk carton,’ or, ‘Wow, I get this at school. We’re getting it now too,’” Payne said.
Christina Dougherty likes that it takes a bit of the burden off of families.
“It's still a great time saver, ensuring them that the kids are getting, you know, all their fruits, all their vegetables,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty admits it’s a lot to handle, but they’ve been here before. Even though the hybrid schedule stretches her staff pretty thin, she’s excited to take a step toward normalcy.
“We can’t wait to hear the voices. We can’t wait to hear the feet. We can’t wait to see the eyes smiling behind the masks. But you know, we are definitely looking at a lot, a whole lot of work coming up ahead of us. But once again, we’re grateful, grateful that we get to do it,” Doughtery said.
The county encourages parents to contact their school nutrition manager to place orders for meal kits.