Bath, ME (November 25, 2020) – When you ask someone how COVID-19 has affected their job, you’re likely to get the reply that things are “constantly changing.” That’s certainly the case for Tim Harkins, Director of Food Services at RSU1.
When schools abruptly closed on Friday, March 13, 2020, Harkins had just three days to get a food delivery program up and running. As Harkins pointed out, “You can deliver instruction remotely, but you can’t provide food remotely.”
Harkins sat down with Bath Bus Service to create delivery routes and began using the district’s busses for food transportation. Teachers, ed techs, and community volunteers helped load busses and manned designated meal pickup sites where parents, guardians, and students could come collect meals. This support was crucial to Harkins because it minimized the number of times his staff were in contact with the public. If even one staff member had become ill, their whole kitchen would have been shut down.
“The willingness of my staff to step up and face this challenge was remarkable,” Harkins said. “They were willing to deal with their anxiety and fear and do their job to make sure students were fed.”
Harkins not only organized a delivery system but also implemented an entirely new food program to meet changing state and federal agency standards. RSU1 utilizes several food and nutrition service programs during the school year, principally the USDA’s National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, which are designed to feed students in the school environment.
“The USDA felt that the best model to feed students who were not at school was their Summer Food Service Program,” Harkins explained. “So, from March to June, we were authorized to use the Summer Food Service Program with some modifications.”
The Modified Summer Food Service Program granted increased flexibility over both the traditional Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Rather than being required to track individual student food service accounts and whether meals were no charge, reduced, or paid, all meals were provided at no charge and tracking was simplified to a checkoff system that counted the number of meals distributed. Additional waivers allowed Harkins and his staff to serve more than one meal at a time, and for parents and guardians to pick up meals on behalf of their children.
“The traditional summer food program requires that students themselves have to come to the site, eat the food on site, and can only be given one meal,” Harkins said. “With these waivers, we encouraged people to take both breakfast and lunch and leave, for their safety and for ours.”
Throughout the summer, Harkins and other school food service directors across the state were left wondering what program they would use this fall. A week before school reopened, Harkins got word from the State that schools were authorized to continue using the Modified Summer Food Service Program until December, or whenever the program funding ran out. Then, in October, the USDA announced that the program had been extended to cover the entire 2020-2021 school year: a huge relief for schools across the country.
“We want all students to take advantage of this program, whether they are parttime or 100% remote learners. Providing these meals allows us to continue working, gives our staff employment, and hopefully takes a little bit of the burden off families,” Harkins said.
The RSU1 is reimbursed by the federal government for every meal served. The more students who participate in food and nutrition service programs, the more funding the school receives. On an average day prior to COVID-19, Harkins’ staff served around 1,000 lunches and 400 breakfasts. Now they are serving around 500 lunches and 300 breakfasts. They hope to regain some of the lost revenue by continuing to educate families and encouraging them to participate.
“There is plenty of food for everyone. We’re so fortunate that we’re able to participate in [the Modified Summer Food Service Program]. The more people that participate the more vibrant and diverse a program we can offer,” he said.
Harkins has continued to adapt to changes as the school year progresses; he and his team are constantly looking for ways to optimize packaging for pickup meals, even moving from brown bags to plastic bags so students can see what food they are taking home.
“It’s a team effort,” he said. “Things are constantly changing and evolving, but I feel good about where we are.”
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Photo: Left: Tanji Johnston, Social Worker at Fisher Mitchell School, right: Meg Barker, Librarian at Fisher Mitchell School