In one day, Salem-Keizer puts together plan to feed thousands of kids out of school

Shelli Dehut passes out free lunches to students at Hoover Elementary School on March 16, 2020, the first day of a statewide public school closure. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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School officials had one working day to figure out how to feed thousands of students in the Salem-Keizer School District after Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday, March 12, ordered all Oregon schools to close.

Food planned for hot lunches was returned to the district’s main kitchen on South Industrial Road to be stored, donated or thrown away. In its place, workers with Sodexo, Salem-Keizer’s food service contractor, spent all day Saturday bagging sandwiches and small bags of broccoli.

Chief operating officer Mike Wolfe has overseen hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction projects in his time with Salem-Keizer, but said he’s never had to organize anything on this scale so quickly.

“This is my first pandemic,” he said.

Monday was a first run at the plan, with cafeteria workers serving about 2,150 bagged lunches to kids at 36 schools across the district.

That’s far fewer than the tens of thousands of kids who normally eat breakfast or lunch at school. About seven out of 10 of the district’s 41,000 students qualify for free or reduced price meals at school.

The interest in the new lunch regiment varied by school. Workers at North Salem High School served only six meals, while at Auburn Elementary, staff had to call for a re-supply of food to give out 125 brown bags.

“No one got turned away,” Wolfe said.

The effort wasn’t without its hiccups. District officials had promised breakfast and lunch would be available to go, but were delayed in getting enough packaging for the breakfasts, Wolfe said.

They’ll be able to hand out breakfast starting Tuesday: a tray with packaged cereal and a box of raisins. Kids can also pick up cartons of milk.

Bridget West, Hoover Elementary School principal, gets a Spanish lesson from a student picking up a free lunch on March 16, 2020 during a statewide school closure (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Hoover Elementary was among the busier sites, with 81 meals handed out between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Principal Bridget West stood outside with cafeteria workers Shelli Dehut and Debbie Davids, who normally works at Crossler Middle School.

Kids approached in pairs or threes, sometimes with parents, sometimes biking or walking over alone. A few didn’t want meals personally, but still came to bring younger siblings.

As Dehut and Davids passed out bags, West talked with her regular students and took the opportunity to work on her Spanish language skills, which she’s trying to improve while school is out.

“Leche chocolate?” as she offered milk to one family that pulled up to the curb in a van.

West said she’s been impressed with how quickly everyone adapted to the new normal of school closures. She said she expected more questions from families having difficulties with childcare, but didn’t get any.

“The best part is I get to be the rock for the kids and the families,” she said.

For some, grabbing a bagged lunch provided a way to break up a day otherwise spent sitting at home.

The Barajas family gets ready to walk home after picking up lunches at Hoover Elementary School on March 16, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Anita Barajas walked to Hoover with five children and her niece in tow. Three of her children attend the school, she said, and two are still too young.

As a stay-at-home mom, Barajas said she’s been lucky, not having to scramble to arrange childcare. The biggest challenge has been keeping everyone busy.

Normally when school isn’t in session, Barajas will take them out to events or museums. But with nearly all public gatherings canceled or postponed, there’s little to do.

“They’re bored,” she said. The family was coping by “being silly and just trying to have fun,” she said.

Wolfe said the district is reviewing meal distribution as it learns what works day by day. Schools that needed extra meals to get through Monday will have more starting tomorrow, he said.

“As the word gets out more we’ll start seeing more families,” he said.

All schools handing out food will now be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to give people more time to come.

The district is also telling workers it’s okay to give out meals to parents who don’t have kids with them so that kids who may be sick don’t have to come outside to get food.

District administrators are looking at other ways to get food to kids who need it. State and federal rules around school meal programs don’t allow them to deliver food to kids’ homes, Wolfe said, but they may be able to make bulk deliveries at bus stops for places where a large number of students live, like apartment complexes.

One Sodexo employee reported a girl picked a bouquet of flowers on her walk to school to give to the workers passing out food, Wolfe said.

“People were really, really appreciative,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.