More than a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hartford Public Schools Food Services and Child Nutrition workers are once again reinventing the way they feed their students.
For the first time since last March, more than 2,500 students returned to in-person learning Monday, but still thousands of children continue to learn at home.
Whether it's in the cafeteria, in the classroom, or at home, all of them need to be fed.
“Nutrition can be one of the number one factors to fight this pandemic, and good nutrition is never going away. You always need good nutrition," Registered Dietician and Nutritionist Lonnie Burt said.
Reflecting on the multiple, sudden changes her team faced over the past year, Burt said her job as senior director of food for Hartford Public Schools became even more important when the buildings shut down last March.
The kitchens were stocked with food meant for serving in the cafeteria, and there was a sudden spike in the demand for "to go" supplies.
"That was probably one of our hardest things," Burt said, talking about the 14-hour days she and her team put in as they worked to reinvent school lunch, "how are we going to take this food that we normally put here, and get it to families?"
The short term solution was plating and wrapping meals to be heated and served at home, until the school district got the materials needed for the take-home distribution, which continues today.
But now, with more than half of Hartford Public School children back in the buildings, the school kitchens have been transformed into makeshift hubs. Some students eat lunch (socially distanced) in the cafeterias, other lunches are boxed and delivered to classrooms, while families with children still learning at home pick up food Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
Part of the way they're making it work, Burt said, is limiting the number of choices kids would typically see before the COVID pandemic changed everything.
“We wrote one menu that can go classroom, serving line, and home. So that was probably the best thing we did was making sure we were working off the same menu for everything."
Just months before the pandemic started, NBC Connecticut covered the Hartford Schools "Farm to School" fresh produce program. Burt said the last year actually helped that effort grow. She says when many farmers markets and restaurants had to shut down, it created an opportunity for the school district to buy even more fruits and vegetables from local growers, which she hopes to expand even further as more kids return to school.