When the new coronavirus (COVID-19) forced school buildings to close and students to learn from home for the rest of the year, Dalton Public Schools continued to provide meals for the students utilizing a playbook from the summer nutrition program, which made last month's transition to the summer meals program relatively seamless.
"As far as the components and what is served," the summer program isn't much different from the final two months of the academic term this spring, said Wimberly Brackett, director of school nutrition for Dalton Public Schools. "We transitioned into our seamless summer feeding" program in mid-March, and "we have such a strong summer program that it was an easy transition."
Her department has also continued health and safety measures established in March due to the pandemic.
"We're all wearing masks when preparing food, we're taking the temperatures of employees every morning, and there's some additional cleaning that goes on, as well," she said. "We've always had very high sanitation scores, and no employees have tested positive" for COVID-19.
All the food is prepared at Dalton Middle School, then sent out to the various sites, she said. "We're making sure everybody remains a safe distance apart.''
The main hurdle for her department for the summer program, which kicked off May 18, has been using personal vehicles to deliver meals, rather than buses, which were used from mid-March to mid-May, Brackett said. Personal vehicles aren't as welcoming or familiar as yellow school buses, so each personal vehicle has a Dalton Public Schools Nutrition magnet on it for identification, and "every week it's gotten a little easier to reach more people."
For the final two months of the school year, nutrition services employed 22 bus routes, and "we've condensed that to 10" for the summer, she said. In addition to those deliveries, Dalton Public Schools has roughly a dozen stationary sites, mostly schools and parks, where students can find food, and "as more things open up, we may add sites."
Each week, the number of meals served has risen for the summer program, she said. By week three,"we're up to 3,500 lunches per day and 2,000 breakfasts."
Because numbers tend to increase throughout the summer, Brackett believes the amount of meals served this year may be higher than usual, she said. "About normal for us is 3,000-3,500 (lunches per day)."
More information on sites and times for food distributions can be found online at https://www.daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/summer-resources.
Students can also pick up books for the summer on Wednesdays at some of the schools, courtesy of Big Red Reads. On Wednesday, July 8, for example, Big Read Reads will be at Park Creek School from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., then at Brookwood School during that same time frame on Wednesday, July 15.
"We always go to a lunch site," said Alice Ensley, literacy coordinator for Dalton Public Schools. "Lunch and books are a good combination."
If the Big Red Reads bus is at their lunch site, students can grab a free packet of books, Ensley said. Most of the books in each package are meant to help them practice reading, and there's typically one designed for "family read aloud."
In addition to the free, grade-level books for students of all ages, "we also give away books for children (from) birth to prekindergarten, (as well as) bilingual books," she said. As of June 3, Big Red Reads had already distributed nearly 300 books this summer.
Big Red Reads is also providing pencils and paper for students to write or draw, she said. "This is the 11th summer for Big Red Reads."
"I'm a strong believer that children become better readers by reading" books they "can read and want to read," Ensley explained in April. If students keep reading while school is out of session, that can reduce "the summer slide some experience."
Summer meals are offered every weekday, and, as of early this month, "we (could start to) serve weekend meals," Brackett said. "We got approval from the Department of Education to do that, which is wonderful, so they can get a breakfast and a lunch for Saturday and Sunday" on Friday.
In addition, students no longer have to be present to receive meals, thanks to a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said. Parents, grandparents or guardians can collect meals for children.
School systems can also provide meals for multiple days, which is a change in effect for this year, she said. "I hope both of those" new measures continue.
The summer program doesn't offer as many choices as the meal service during the school year when students are in buildings, she said. "It's not like having a serving line in front of them, (although) we do try to provide some alternatives for students with food allergies."
For breakfast, students can expect items such as cereal, milk, fresh fruit, 100% fruit juice, yogurt and chicken biscuits, while lunches offer similar beverages along with fresh fruit, sandwiches and wraps, she said. "We do a lot of biscuits, and we always have fresh fruit."
Because farmers have extra produce, that has been "fairly easy to get," and when certain items aren't available, "US Foods always has a substitute," she said. "They've been wonderful to work with."
Meals are a mix of cold and hot items, she said. Especially for the weekend meals, "we need things that will keep for a day or two."
For the summer meals program, Brackett uses many students for work, and this year more students applied than usual, she said. For one thing, "a lot of camps and things this summer got canceled" due to the pandemic, and, for another, "a lot of the restaurants are cutting back staff."
"I have a wait list of students" wishing to work, she said. "I could hire 20 more tomorrow if I needed to."
Austin Burt, a member of Dalton High School's Class of 2020 and the school's sole Georgia Scholar this year, is one of those students working in the nutrition department this summer.
"It's 7-12 in the morning, and then I have the rest of the afternoon to do what I want to do," he said. He both prepares and serves meals, and "I feel like I'm contributing a lot more to the community doing this than the average summer job."
Summer meals are free to children under 18 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's summer meals program, and any child can eat anywhere, even if it's not his or her "home" school or system. That was also the rule during the nutrition offering the final two months of the school year.
"Whitfield County Schools kids can eat our meals, and our kids can eat at their schools," Brackett said. "If you're staying at your grandparents' house in a (different area), or you're visiting from another state, you can have the food."