It’s What They Do: School Nutrition Staff in the Age of COVID

by John Puder, Regional Manager for Child Hunger Outreach, Houston Regional Office


The COVID-19 pandemic has become an unending nightmare for so many of us.  From the inconvenience of wearing a mask to the terrifying fear that a deadly virus is at our doorstep, 2020 has been a year of hiding at home for many of us.  We hide behind zoom screens, enrich Amazon, dread economic collapse and live in social paralysis.

Still, we rely upon heroes to keep the world spinning.  Having the courage to tend for the infected, we celebrate doctors, nurses and healthcare champions. Police and Firefighters have often, deservedly, been lauded for their service and bravery.  Yet COVID-19 has peeled back the curtain and revealed new heroes.  We bench the star athletes, lower the curtain on entertainers and silence the musicians, so we can cheer on the new superstars, the men and women who exit the safety of home to serve us, the same ones who have always served us.  Grocery clerks, delivery drivers and transit workers are the new essential workers.

COVID-19 has shown us who and what is truly essential. It has also revealed the best in us.  School nutrition staff, often diminutively referred to as “lunch ladies”, are placing the needs of students above their personal safety concerns.  They have come out from behind the counters to stand on curb sides to deliver meals to hungry children.  When schools closed sending students and teachers home, the nutrition teams showed up – they had mouths to feed.

Transitioning without plans or time, they converted their in-person, school cafeteria sites into curbside delivery.  Hot meals served on trays became shelf stable meals to-go.  As federal and state regulations morphed on an almost daily basis, the staff kept their eyes on the need – feeding students.  Equipment moved, staff schedules shifted, and updates were communicated.  Changing everything and doing it without preparation still seems too daunting to imagine, yet school district after school district found a way.

Students depend upon schools to provide healthy breakfasts and lunches.  For far too many youth, these meals are indispensable.  The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) reports that on average, over three million students receive lunches each school day. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, over two thirds of Texas students qualified for a free or reduced priced meals.  The shock to our economy is placing even greater demands on families.

With schools reopening, child nutrition teams are again being called upon to be creative with the ever changing needs on the ground.  In addition to serving virtual learners, they will also be navigating new ways to serve meals while keeping students safe and socially distanced. Without any doubt, we can feel secure, that these essential workers will again feed hungry children. It’s what they do.


John Puder

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