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Food Challenges For Public Schools During A Pandemic

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KAYTE YOUNG: Production support for Earth Eats comes from Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio. And Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at BillReschInsurance.com

(Earth Eats theme music) 

KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats. 

This week on our show as our local public school district announces plans for the fall, we revisit a conversation with Hattie Johnson from the school district’s Nutrition Services. She tells a compelling story about shifting gears, on the spot to provide take-out meals for students in the Spring when the public schools first closed due to COVID-19.

Harvest public media has a story about pandemic challenges for wheat farmers, 

and I’ve got a crockpot recipe to keep your kitchen cool and your household nourished.  

(theme music fades out)

KAYTE YOUNG: Farmers in the Great Plains are in the middle of cutting their wheat crops. Even as more people bake during the pandemic, Harvest Public Media’s Seth Bodine reports some wheat farmers may need help to break even.

SETH BODINE: Jimmy Kinder is in what he calls “wheat crop mode.” Kinder, a fourth-generation farmer in southwest Oklahoma mainly grows wheat and raises cattle. And like many farmers across Oklahoma and the Great Plains region right now, Kinder’s wheat is ready to harvest. He says things were looking good this year, until mother nature brought a freeze in early April.

JIMMY KINDER:  Just kinda like the tax man although this time the freeze, the weather, took approximately half of our yield from us, cuz the wheat had froze and it was just about to flower and it was very susceptible to freeze at that point

SETH BODINE: That means that while the Kinder’s wheat grew, the wheat heads are not producing as much grain as expected, and there’s a flash drought. But that’s actually good news for him.

JIMMY KINDER: That's excellent for wheat harvest and we're able to get the harvest out with dry ground.

SETH BODINE: Dry conditions through the winter wheat belt may mean that harvest season will progress quickly in some southern states.

KIM ANDERSON: Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, we're just positioned where our crop was mature enough to withstand the dry conditions and prepare us for harvest

SETH BODINE: That’s Kim Anderson. He’s an agricultural marketing professor at Oklahoma State University and Extension economist. As more people are baking during the pandemic, he saw wheat prices rise. That was only a small bump up. Overall, a global surplus has pushed wheat prices down.

KIM ANDERSON:  The world is producing 28.2 billion bushels of wheat. That's an all time record. And so I think it's stocks that got the price low.

SETH BODINE: Anderson says U.S. farmers are losing about 20 cents per bushel. He says for some farmers, especially those only growing wheat, that may not be a problem.

KIM ANDERSON:  The one that's completely dedicated will have a much higher probability of breaking even and than part time producer because a large part of the cost is land and machinery and large producers can spread that cost over more acres and more bushels

SETH BODINE: Anderson says lower wheat prices won’t make bread or flour any cheaper at the grocery store. But farmers like Jimmy Kinder will take a hit. He says wheat is about 40% of his income. To adapt to the change, Kinder says he’s using some of his wheat to feed his cattle. He’s also trying to put off any major purchases.

JIMMY KINDER: Today's wheat crop is all about trying to stay in business till things get better.

Kinder says he’s always adapted to the market, but with the economic ups and downs from COVID-19 has put extra pressure on him.

JIMMY KINDER: I work all year to produce something that's marketed in one month. And so I've got to make sure that a year's worth of work doesn't go in vain and get the best price possible.

SETH BODINE: In the meantime, Kinder says he has applied for federal aid through programs like the $19 billion coronavirus food assistance program.

For Harvest Public Media, I’m Seth Bodine.

KAYTE YOUNG: Find more from this reporter collective at Harvest Public Media dot Org (Piano Music)

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] With the first inklings of the possibility of public schools closing in response to COVID-19, I noticed right away on social media a concern about school lunches. It seems people in my circle have an awareness of how much some families in our community rely on those daily meals throughout the school year. Turns out, even before the school closings were announced, the district had a plan for that. 

HATTIE JOHNSON: Our folks are working at all our buildings, preparing meals for pickup on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. All packaged and ready to go home.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] That's Hattie Johnson. She's the director of nutrition services for the Monroe County Community School Corporation. She explained that the USDA has several child nutrition programs and for an unanticipated school closure, they're allowed to implement a program similar to their summer meal program. They can serve meals to any child 18 years and younger. 

HATTIE JOHNSON: Typically, food service requires the students to eat the meals on site. Like they can't take it away unless it's a documented field trip. For this cause, part of what we need to do right now is not have large groups of people together, so to support that, USDA did grant a waiver that allows us to be able to do that, and still qualify.  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I stopped by my neighborhood elementary school this week to check it out. They were set up at the entrance to the school with some plastic tables lined with bags. The rope from the school's flagpole tapped out a steady rhythm. I spoke with Sharon Stanton, she's the kitchen supervisor at Templeton Elementary.  

SHARON STANTON: We've been doing the distribution since last Monday, which is March 23rd. And this site here we were feeding six other schools and four communities, which in one-week time we made over 5,000 sack lunches for breakfast and lunch.

Each student will get two days’ worth of food. We distribute Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. So, on Monday and Wednesday they'll get meals for Monday and Tuesday, and then on Wednesday they'll get meals for Wednesday and Thursday. And Friday they'll only get meals for Friday. 

It's for any children under the age of 18. So, if a family comes in, say to go to Templeton, and they have a student here, and then they have a brother sister, whose not of school age yet, but they are under 18, then they also would get a meal. 
Each school can take families from other school sites. And the meal contains just like a lunch meal, which is their main entre, which is a protein and a grain. They get a fruit, they get a vegetable, they get milk. We serve chili, so that comes with corn muffins. And so, we make sure they get a protein and a grain. 

The distribution is set up in two ways. The community will come in their van or car, they will drive up, and then one of our ladies will come up and see how many children they have. And then we will set up here, she will grab the bag, and then she'll take it. The parents or guardian... they do not get out the car. So, it is like the drive-up system. 

If a walker comes in, they will have to stay within their 6 feet distance. They'll bring out a table, they'll put it down, and then they all go and get it. No physical contact at all. 

They're very important. There are a lot of children who need the assistance. And there's a lot of, even if they don’t' need the assistance, the grocery stores are so thin of what they can buy. You know, so everybody is in kind of the same category right now. 

It's for anyone, for anyone in the community, any child under the age of 18 can get a meal. We just tally. If a car drives up, say they want two then we check off two. So, there is a tally sheet that we give to our supervisor at the end of the week 

(Children talking in the background)

(Piano music) 

 KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] That was Sharon Stanton, the kitchen supervisor at Templeton Elementary School. After a short break we'll talk more with Hattie Johnson, the director of Nutrition Services for Monroe County Public Schools.  

(Earth Eats production support music)

KAYTE YOUNG: Production support comes from Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop. Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net. And Bill Brown at Griffy Creek Studio, architectural design and consulting for residential, commercial and community projects. Sustainable, energy positive and resilient design for a rapidly changing world. Bill at griffy creek dot studio.

(Piano music)  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] The food distribution program may be running smoothly now, they're into week two of the school closure, after a scheduled spring break. But that doesn't mean there wasn't a bit of chaos at the start. 

HATTIE JOHNSON: Dr.DeMuth was forward thinking and she did have us developing a plan for the what-if. We got to the point that on Thursday the 12th of March, we had a final meeting. And Dr.DeMuth was pleased with the plan, said "This sounds good, think this can work. I think we're ready if we have to end up closing or whatever, we wanna feed our kids. I think we're ready".  

And then to everybody's surprise, later that afternoon she called to say "The plans we made are now in effect."

It's like "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I thought we were getting ready for in case we didn't come back after spring break." 

And we really thought we were preparing on an in case we couldn't come back on June 23rd. I mean not June 23rd, March 23rd. As it turned out we didn't come back on March 13th, that was our first day. 

When they were picking up packets, we were doing meals that day. That was rough. I was just happy it went... when Dr.Demuth called me I just kept saying "Okay, I have a plan." 

And she's like "Are you okay?" 

It's like "I have a plan." I just kept saying "I have a plan." (laughs)

And I mean, literally, got a meeting with her like at 9:00 that morning. Had alerted the kitchen managers, met with them that afternoon at 2:15, and it was maybe 3:30-4:00, somewhere in there when Dr. Demuth called to say the plan was in action. 

I was like "Okay, great."

So fortunately, I had got cell phone numbers for all the kitchen managers and I sent a group text. Said "Can you meet me at the office at 6:30?"

And they all came. And it's like "Lunch is not what you had planned for tomorrow." (laughs) "Because you need to put it in a bag. And so, go to your kitchens tonight and figure out what that is. And be ready in the morning." 

And they all came, and they called their staff, and some of those folks came out that night, and started putting bags together. It was that quick. So, it was a little mind boggling that "Oh my gosh. It's here right now, am I really ready?" 

Like "I got a plan but... the plan that I didn't really plan on having to implement."  

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] So, they made it work that first day. Then they had spring break to regroup and get the new system in place. On that first day back form spring break, around 9,000 families took meals. It was high that day since all families picking iPads and curriculum packets from the schools were offered the meals. 

Since that first day the numbers have leveled out to about 4,000 families daily, which Hattie says is in line with their free and reduced lunch numbers. These lunches are available to all children free of charge, but the majority of households using the service are on free and reduce lunch programs. 

Since food distribution requires being around other people and interacting with the public, I wanted to know how they were preventing the potential spread of infection during food prep and the food distribution. 

HATTIE JOHNSON: I guess the biggest change for us is the social distancing. Cause typically you're in a kitchen, you're working with somebody, you're on one side of the table, they're on the other side of the table, and at most the table is three four feet deep. And so, to shift people from end to end to get that spacing has been the biggest challenge. 

On the other side, safe food handling and food safety, that's just what we do as a practice anyway. The clean, the sanitize, the disinfect, it's just a part of regular routine. 

We have stressed to our bus drivers cause typically they're not in the kitchen, and even though they're just handling the boxes and all those things, we expressed to them that they need even at that service point, get their food handler gloves on.  

KAYTE YOUNG: Bus drivers and bus monitors are helping to distribute the food at the community sites the non-school locations. I keep hearing about the trials of office workers shifting to work at home, the isolation and even boredom from being cooped up in the house. I suspected that has not Hattie's experience the past few weeks.  

HATTIE JOHNSON:(Laughs) It has not. I am in the office or out and about at school everyday, Monday through Friday, all day here. We're busier in there now. There's so much emotion I guess, into this. And even though it's food service and food service is what we do, we're doing it in a different way. And some of the staff of course, they're stressed, and they're trying to do all of this reduction and keep the social distancing going, and then do quantity food production in a different way. 

It's just a different kind of learning curve with EDS. It's on level of stress to what's already a stressful situation. It's like we're not stopping. It's like when you think you can step back, and take a breather, something else comes up that... you know, maybe you didn’t' anticipate or thought they understood. But even though it's a slight difference it's different enough that you need to go back and retrain and redirect. 

Take our fresh produce, our delivery days have always, always been Tuesdays and Thursdays. Well because of this situation and how hard that industry has been hit with all these schools across, and I'll just state here in Indiana, that also purchase from PI for  produce, they're getting hit for a lot of fresh cut. We all want not our broccoli heads, because we don't have time to clean them all, and cut them all. We want the broccoli florets, fresh. They can't keep up. 
The other side of their coin, they lost a good volume of their restaurant business because restaurants are closed. That impacted their distribution, they made changes, and all of a sudden, our delivery days aren't Tuesday Thursday. They switched us to Monday, Wednesday, Friday. But guess what? Managers had already did orders anticipating a Tuesday drop. They found out on Monday - "No, no, no, no, no. We had to make a change, we're not on Bloomington on Tuesdays. You'll see that product on Wednesday."

KAYTE YOUNG: (Gasps) 

HATTIE JOHNSON:It's like "Oh no! Now what am I going to do for produce?" 
And so now you're calling every other school "Whose got excess of that and excess of that?" 

Jump in the car, running around, getting from this one that's got a little extra, one to that one, and "Oh my gosh. Now, some of my kids are going to have carrots for their veggies and these are going to have broccoli for their veggie." And it's just trickle down. 

The industry has been shaken by what schools are doing right now. Because while we purchase from these same vendors, we purchase different products. And in different volumes. We need to take my menu off the website. (laughs)

KAYTE YOUNG: (laughs) Yeah.

HATTIE JOHNSON: It's a... it's a challenge. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] I wanted to know how she personally was holding up.  

HATTIE JOHNSON: I'm doing okay. I think Friday, and maybe that first week (sighs) it was just hard. I think I just put in way too many hours trying to be sure, trying to be ready, trying to be sure to death as ready, everybody's understood. And by the time I got to last weekend I thought "Oh, the battery is drained. I am dead." (laughs). 

But by Sunday I was back to normal and here I am, and all is good, I'm healthy. I've decided that this is really an opportunity to truly be of service to other folks and I'm just enjoying it. 

I pray daily for myself, for my staff, that they stay healthy, that their families stay healthy. Because without all those cooks out there, none of this food could happen. That plan couldn't been implemented if it were not for all those cooks, and bus drivers, and bus monitors that are carrying this food around the county. So, like I said, I just pray daily that they remain healthy, that they stay encouraged, and keep a love for kiddos so that they continue wanna get out there, get up every day, and make the food. 

KAYTE YOUNG: [Narrating] As the head of Child Nutrition services for the school district, Hattie Johnson knows better than most how many families rely on school lunches. And the ongoing need for food assistance in our community. I asked if she was concerned about those numbers increasing.  

HATTIE JOHNSON: I'm sure that they will, because you got so many people that are now charting new waters. Like they've never been unemployed. They've never had to go down and ask for assistance and so I'm concerned that as time goes on, will they know how to navigate that process. Most people that have never been on the school meal program don't know how simple it is to apply or they've got so much pride that they may go without because pride is in the way. And they won't ask and apply. 

So when COVID 19 is over you know it's peaked and the numbers have come down and life goes back to normal, I'm thinking there's still gonna be people who lost a job because the small business couldn't sustain through this, and their kids aren’ton free lunch because they had income, are they gonna get lost? 

When this is over, it's like, it's not over on our end because then we need to spearhead into that communication piece of training and information for people who have never been on the unemployment line, who just don't know where to go, to navigate the service, and find the services that are out there for them. Cause it's real. 

KAYTE YOUNG: That was Hattie Johnson, director of nutrition services for Monroe County Community School Corporation. You can find details of school lunch distribution program on our website, EarthEats dot org. 

(Guitar strings gently being plucked) 

Our recipe today is not a fancy dish. It's simple. It's basic. You'll find a variation of it in many cultures, especially in central and south America. It was the first thing I learned to make on my own as a young adult and it stayed with me. It's a comfort food. And it seems appropriate for these times. Black beans and rice. 

The way that I make my dried beans these days is I pour them into a crockpot. And I cover them with water. And I cook them on high for three hours. You can also throw a bay leaf in there, maybe some salt. And cut up an onion. 

(Sounds of kitchen items being gently used, pot lids closing, ect). 

Throw it in there. Just to begin building some flavor. 

(Guitar strumming music)  

So, it has been about two hours and forty-five minutes. I'm going to check to see if they're done. Oh yeah, these are done.  

So, at this point you wanna take them off when they're nice and soft, but hopefully still retaining their shape. Turn the heat off and you might want to pour out any extra liquid so they're not just continuing to sit there and soak and get softer. 

(Sound of water being drained from beans)

And now it's time to work on seasoning the beans. I want to get some more flavors in there. So, I'm gonna add some garlic, some spices like cumin, chili powder. And I'm also gonna add some tomatoes. I'm gonna add canned tomatoes. 

Some oil in the pan. Let that heat up. And we'll add the garlic.  

(Sound of wooden spoon scraping on pan, and oil sizzling quietly) 

And then we're gonna add two teaspoons of cumin, and about a half a teaspoon of chili powder. And let all of that sauté together, releasing those flavors and aromas. Just let that sizzle for about a minute. 

And then I'm gonna use canned tomatoes, I prefer the whole tomatoes. They tend to have a little more flavor and substance to them. Then I'm just gonna break them up with my wooden spoon and turn the heat up a little. Get the tomatoes cooking. 

And at this point you'll also want to add more salt. Gonna add at least another teaspoon. At this point you could also add chilis, you could add dried chilis in the crockpot or you can add some fresh chopped chilis right now. 

I'm gonna see what I've got here. We have chilis. Chipotle... morita, this is a dried one. Think I'm just gonna stick one of those in here now, I probably should’ve done it earlier, but I'm gonna go ahead and try it. 

Okay, our tomatoes are really simmering here (sound of bubbling in pan). And they're nice and broken up. And I'm gonna add the beans back in, and I’ve taken out the two bay leaves. 

And now I'm going to bring that up a boil and then turn it down and let it simmer probably with the lid off, or just slightly ajar. Let it just simmer for another 20 minutes, half hour or so, just to really let all those flavors meld together. And it's pretty much ready. 

(Guitar chords plucking, gentle minimalist music) 

Alright our black beans have been simmering with their seasoning for about 20 minutes, and let's check on them. They look great, they have kind of a sauciness, glossy look to them. The beans are still holding their shape. That tomatoes mixture is just fully incorporated, and it smells fantastic. Let's give it a taste. 

Mmm, yeah, the smokey, that smokey chipotle is really coming through. These taste pretty well seasoned. I'm probably gonna want to put hot sauce on it, but not everyone in my family likes spicy foods. So, I tend to keep things on the mild side and then we just always have hot sauce on the table. So, these are ready. 

And I'm gonna turn the heat off for now. And when we're ready to have dinner I'm gonna make some rice. Make whichever kind of rice you prefer. You can also serve it over quinoa or some other grain of your choice. I'm just gonna use white rice in the rice cooker. And follow the instructions on your package of rice if you don't already know how to make rice. 

And then I like to serve it with all sorts of toppings. I'm gonna put jack shredded jack cheese on it, lettuce and spinach shredded, some red salsa, little bit of sour cream. If you have an avocado that would be perfect. You could squeeze a little wedge of lime over the top. 

And just serve that in a bowl over the rice and all the toppings, and it is delicious and satisfying, almost festive. But yet it's also this really basic, comforting, simple meal. Since we made a big pot of it, we're gonna have a lot of leftovers so that can be burritos, tacos, throughout the week. 

And that's about it, black beans. Find the recipe at EarthEats.org. 

That's it for our show this week. Stay nourished, stay safe. 

(Earth Eats theme music, composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey)

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Chad Bouchard, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Taylor Killough, Josephine McRobbie, Daniel Orr, The IU Food Institute, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Hattie Johnson, and Sharon Stanton. 

Production support comes from Insurance agent Dan Williamson of Bill Resch Insurance. Offering comprehensive auto, business and home coverage, in affiliation with Pekin Insurance. Beyond the expected. More at 812-336-6838. Bloomingfoods Coop Market, providing local residents with locally sourced food since 1976. Owned by over 12,000 residents in Monroe County and beyond. More at Bloomingfoods.Coop. 
And Elizabeth Ruh, Enrolled Agent, providing customized financial services for individuals, businesses, disabled adults including tax planning, bill paying, and estate services.  More at Personal Financial Services dot net.

Various food items in a white plastic bag, including small cartons of milk, a pear and a round, white paper container.

All food items needed to be packaged to go, including hot foods like chili and macaroni and cheese. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

This week on our show as our local public school district announces plans for the fall, we revisit a conversation with Hattie Johnson from the school district’s Nutrition Services. She tells a compelling story about shifting gears, on the spot to provide take-out meals for students in the Spring when the public schools first closed due to COVID-19.

Harvest Public Media has a story about pandemic challenges for wheat farmers, and I’ve got a crockpot recipe to keep your kitchen cool and your household nourished

--

School Lunch, To-Go

With the first inklings of the possibility of public schools closing in response to Covid 19, I noticed right away, on social media,  a concern about school lunches. Many were concerned about the families in our community who rely on those daily meals throughout the school year. 

It turns out, even before the school closings were announced, the district had a plan for that. MCCSC Nutrition Services made a quick pivot to take-out meals at all schools and other sites throughout the community. 

Earth Eats visits one of the meal distribution sites and we speak with Hattie Johnson, the Director of Nutrition Services for the school district, about the rapid implentation of their emergency plan. 

(this story orginally aired on April 04, 2020)

Stories On This Episode

Farmers Are Struggling To Break Even Amid A Surge In Global Wheat Production

John Blair standing in front of a wheat combine in a wheat field.

Farmers in the Great Plains are in the middle of cutting their wheat crops. Even as more people bake during the pandemic, Harvest Public Media’s Seth Bodine reports some wheat farmers may need help to break even.

Kayte's Simple Black Beans and Rice

A white bowl with cooked black beans topped with cheese, lettuce, salsa, cilantro.

Have black beans and rice tonight, then tacos later in the week.

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