Douglas County school district providing huge number of free meals

Demand for program exceeds expectations during COVID-19

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When the Douglas County School District launched its free lunch and breakfast program amid the COVID-19 pandemic, staff did not know how much interest to expect from the community. Several weeks later, as the district is handing out meals by the tens of thousands on a weekly basis, demand for the program has exceeded all expectations.

The week of April 27, the district gave out more than 42,200 meals. On May 4, it handed out 8,800 that day alone. Compare that to the district’s summer meal program that kicks off at the end of the school year, which last year provided 44,000 meals the entire summer.

“And that was a record for us, and now to do 40,000 in one week, it’s just blowing our minds a bit,” said Jen Peifer, the manager of operations for the district’s Nutrition Services Department.

She believes a need for food support sparked by rising unemployment, shuttered school buildings and little to no child care will continue growing during the pandemic.

The program kicked off with three pickup sites in the county and has since expanded to 13, including locations in Parker, Highlands Ranch, Castle Rock, Larkspur and Sedalia.

“Every time we open a new site, we have not seen a decrease in our current sites,” Peifer said.

The week the program launched, March 23, the district passed out almost 9,500 meals. That nearly doubled the following week and near tripled in two weeks and continued climbing until it surpassed 42,000 in late April.

Locations are selected based on where the department believes there is a significant need. That was sometimes at the recommendation of principals and parents who said they were delivering food to numerous families in an area that did not have the means of traveling to a pickup location.

Within a week of the asks, DCSD’s Nutrition Services department got new locations up and running, Peifer said.

“In the Douglas County School District, our Nutrition Services team members have proven that they truly are heroes and wear aprons instead of capes,” Superintendent Thomas Tucker said in a statement to Colorado Community Media. “We are here to support the nutritional needs of our students and will continue to do so through the summer months.”

The district’s free meal program during remote education will roll into the summer meal program, which operates similarly. Any child 18 or younger can receive a meal. No proof of income or residency is required.

The risk of employees catching the virus was a concern of Peifer’s. To protect staff and to prevent a total shutdown of the program, they use three separate locations to package and prepare meals.

Splitting up meal production requires fewer employees on site, and means if one location must shut down because of a COVID-19 exposure, there are backup locations still running.

Masks are mandatory for each worker for the entirety of his or her shift. The department instituted a health check on each employee. Staff take their temperature with a disposable thermometer before their shift begins and fill out a health log, detailing any symptoms, contacts or exposures to the virus.

“They’re really on the front lines of this,” Peifer said.

The program “has definitely not been without its challenges,” Peifer said, pointing to strains on the supply chain caused by the pandemic. The department struggled getting enough apples, milk and other foods.

“We all of a sudden had a lot more competition for the same product,” Peifer said.

Their production distributors took on grocery stores and saw increased demand during COVID-19. Food manufacturers such as meatpacking plants are accustomed to employing high numbers of people in close quarters, but that grew dangerous or impossible during the pandemic.

The types of food, brands and amount of food that Nutrition Services would typically order has also changed during COVID-19. Where the department would order 20 cases of peanut butter in a normal week, it might now order 400, Peifer said.

It is also leaning more on packaged foods that are less delicate and require less preparation than products like fresh produce.

DCSD is fortunate to have a warehouse and 10,000-square-foot freezer that provided options they did not have to rely on the supply chain for, Peifer said.

“We just really want to make sure that people know this program is going to keep going,” she said.

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