East Otero lunch program provides over 533,300 meals since pandemic forced massive school closures

Otero's move to Level Blue a welcome sign from East Otero School District

Christian Burney
LA Junta Tribune
East Otero School District's modified meal distribution program has provided over half a million meals since the COVID-19 outbreak first impacted Colorado last March

COVID Dial Level Blue was a welcomed sign for the East Otero School District.

Cori Hanson, who oversees the food service program, gave a report on the modified school lunches program that the district adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hanson, who oversaw the lunch distribution program, outlined the various challenges and successes of the year. One major success Hanson pointed out is that the district supplied over 533,300 kids with meals since the beginning of the pandemic.

The district increased meals distributed by 41% compared to previous years, Hanson said. He described the leap in growth as "pretty fantastic."

But the successes don't end there. Under the national federal school lunch program that the district normally participates in — the same program that the United States Department of Agriculture issued waivers for due to COVID-19 — the school district is reimbursed $3.60 for every meal distributed.

Thanks to USDA waivers, the district was able to enroll in a summer school lunches program that came with more flexibilities, including a higher reimbursement rate of $4.34 per meal distributed.

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On top of that, under the national program, districts are only reimbursed for up to 89% of meals distributed, Hanson explained. But the summer meals program reimburses 100% of meals distributed.

All of those factors added up led to the district's school lunch program raising more profits. Currently, the district's lunch program budget is over $700,000.

"You've obviously seen an unprecedented growth in our food service profit with a current balance of over $700,000," Hanson said. "That is obviously unprecedented, especially for a district this size that has never even thought of numbers that size sitting in their food services."

The summer meals program allowed the district to distribute up to four meals per student, per distribution; allowed staff to operate outside of regular school day hours (including weekends and holidays); and allowed for drop-off distribution. But the surplus benefits aren't set to last, or at least Hanson doesn't expect them to.

"Will this trend continue? The short answer is no, it will not," Hanson said. "I don't think the USDA is going to sustain this program. But the future isn't clear ... Currently the waivers are in place so that the summer food service program will continue until the end of this school year. So June 30, 2021, will be the technical end date unless there is a new waiver to extend it."

Hanson observed other successes before the board. He said he didn't have to dismiss one staff member and that job security was an important factor in making the meals operation work. If staff weren't feeling safe to attend a distribution, they weren't required to, but Hanson said they always knew that work was available if they wanted it.

The biggest success of all, Hanson said, was the coordination and camaraderie from the students, teachers and families, as well as the community as a whole.

"There's no way that we could serve over half a million meals without their support and effort that they put into it," said Hanson.

School Board President Dee Leyba commended the district staff and volunteers who contributed to the success of the school lunch distribution program through such a tumultuous time.

Board member Kidron Backes asked if Hanson has a game plan for when the USDA waivers are eventually abolished.

"People, I believe, may be becoming accustomed to this program," Backes said. "If the funds do run out how are you going to communicate that so that people don't think, 'Oh, they just dumped us and they don't care anymore.'?"

Hanson said that was a good question, one that he didn't want to answer yet out of fear of jinxing the situation. More seriously, he said that he wants to wait until the June 30 mark is closer in case waivers are extended or other developments occur.

Despite a stellar distribution record, the school lunch program has not been without its challenges, which Hanson addressed at the Monday meeting.

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Many problems stemmed from changes that the state and federal governments made to the food service program, Hanson said.

"You can remember when this all first started there was ... a change every other week. We adapted to those and had some challenges there," he said.

Food shortages and supply chain issues also became somewhat of a stick in the meal program's spokes.

"I never thought we'd see shortages," Hanson said."The last big challenge is adapting to different service models. Whether it's our face-to-face model or our hybrid model or our fully remote model.

"Having to change all those on a dime has really been some of the challenges that our staff have really (made) the adjustments quickly, making sure that students can still get fed."

Regarding COVID-19, Superintendent Rick Lovato was shocked to learn last week that Otero County was headed to Level Blue (Caution) by last Saturday.

"We were all prepared for Yellow," said Lovato. "That's what we were being groomed for. And then Friday afternoon around 2 o' clock I got what I thought was a joke email.

"Later that evening it was confirmed that it was immediate at 9 a.m. the following morning."

Lovato said the only real effect the shift to Level Blue on the COVID-19 dial has on the school district is that its maximum capacity of gatherings for indoor events has been increased.

He said the mask mandate hasn't changed, nor have precautions such as temperature and symptom checks at entrances, social distancing and similar protocols.

"Obviously the big question was we've just started to have our school basketball games," Lovato said. "The junior high tournament (was last) Saturday, they wanted it to be immediate. As much as we want to do that immediately, we were not logistically prepared." 

The school district planned to expand gathering capacities to the allowed maximum after the Tuesday game.

The district held a staff COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Friday. Lovato said the vaccinations are optional and that some staff, including himself, were on the fence about receiving it at first. But, he said, he expects a good turnout for vaccinations.

Next:Otero County receives award for study into Japanese American history in Southeast Colorado

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@gannett.com.