Since the pandemic started in March, almost every aspect of Americans’ lives have been affected, including, of course, how our children are educated. In California, most public schools have remained closed to in-person learning. Naturally, there has been a great deal of discussion and concern about the academic and social-emotional difficulties many students face as a result. Less attention has been given to other basic needs of families, such as ensuring that students have enough food now that they cannot eat at school. In a typical year, Ukiah Unified serves 4,000 meals a day to our students, which means some students eat breakfast, lunch, and an after school supper on our school campuses.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Lenea Pollett, Ukiah Unified’s Food Service Director, and her dedicated staff, children and their families in our community can receive free weekly distributions of food. Every Wednesday, for twelve straight hours, the food service, transportation, custodial, and maintenance staff enthusiastically distribute seven days’ worth of food to each child under the age of 18. Currently, their highly efficient and effective systems are providing food for around 2,000 children every week. On December 30, 2020, we served more than 2900 children! There are 35 staff members involved, who pack food bags four days a week and distribute them at Ukiah High School every Wednesday.
Families who participate in the food distribution drive through the Ukiah High School parking lot are given their bags of food without ever having to leave their cars. Each child receives one bag of produce, one bag of grains and proteins, and one dairy bag (which often includes a gallon of milk). If there are two children in the family, they receive two of each bag. Lenea carefully calculates portions and types of food, as determined by USDA regulations, so that each bag has the equivalent of two meals a day for seven days.
The food varies, depending on what is available. Lenea has learned that she must be flexible in menu preparation, as sometimes the food she anticipated receiving does not arrive on the delivery trucks. During this pandemic, the food supply chain is challenging and not as reliable as normal years. Lenea orders food 10-12 weeks in advance and takes advantage of any last-minute “free” food offerings from the USDA and Department of Defense (DOD). These can range from frozen strawberries to frozen chicken or cheese. In addition, the district was awarded 272,000 pounds of cheese, chicken, and pork from the USDA Farm 2 Families program in the fall. The amount of food Ukiah Unified provides every week is the equivalent of about $30,000.
In addition to the drive-through food distribution, Ukiah Unified also provides weekly home delivery to students whose families are in isolation or quarantine due to Covid. School liaisons give the food service department the names and addresses of students whose families cannot leave their house, and a bus driver delivers the bags of food to each residence. As the number of Covid cases increases in our community, so does the number of home deliveries. In December, there were about 40 students served on the weekly home deliveries to Ukiah Unified students.
Even though students are not in school, the food service, transportation, maintenance, and custodial staff have done an excellent job of spreading joy for special occasions. They have put on special events around the holidays, which thus far have included a Halloween BBQ (with staff in costumes handing out pumpkins and goodie bags of school supplies), hot turkey meals for the holidays, a Labor Day BBQ, and a holiday food box so that families could cook their own complete turkey dinner over the winter break.
During these difficult times, the food service, transportation, custodial, and maintenance staff have cherished the relationships they develop with their weekly regulars and know from the gratitude and appreciation of the families who pick up the food that they are truly making a difference in the lives of many families in our community. Thank you, Ukiah Unified food service, transportation, maintenance, and custodial for your dedication to the children in our community!
School meal distribution is every Wednesday from 6:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. at Ukiah High School. For more information, visit uusd.net or call 707-472-5003.