What's the OPRF kitchen to do in a pandemic?

Finding new ways to feed elementary and high school students

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Micheline Piekarski, director of food and nutrition services at Oak Park and River Forest High School isn't a newcomer to the complexities of feeding our community's children. With more than 40 years of industry experience she is adaptable and quick thinking in the face of change and challenge. Now, the uncertainty of feeding students during a pandemic has Piekarski reimagining what school lunches will look like as cafeterias remain empty this fall.

"I have never experienced anything like this before," said Piekarski. "This is new to everyone and it's the unknown that makes it all so hard."

The summer food service program subsidized by the USDA and other federal programs, grew out of sudden need when schools were suddenly shuttered in spring. The program runs out of the OPRF high school kitchen and provided students in D200 as well as the Districts 90 and 97 public elementary schools with breakfast and lunch five days per week. To date Piekarski and her team have provided more than 175,000 balanced meals containing milk, grains, vegetables, fruits and meat or meat alternatives -- by summer's end that number will be close to 200,000. 

As summer draws to a close, however, Piekarski's focus has shifted from survival mode to the realities of the coming school year. In addition to overseeing D200 food service programs, OPRF serves as the vendor for D97 and D90 meal programs throughout the school year. As a result, Piekarski and her staff have been preparing for varied scenarios -- creating systems suitable for in-person, hybrid, and fully remote learning models.

When D200 moved to a fully remote learning model, Piekarski turned to a pre-ordering system designed to maximize choice and minimize inconvenience for families. Like the summer program, participating students will receive five breakfasts and five lunches packaged for pickup once per week. 

"All of our meals meet national nutrition standards for school lunches," said Piekarski. "It may look like your child is eating a pizza or a blueberry muffin, but they are really eating nutritious low-sodium and low-fat food made from whole grains."

Building on the summer program, Piekarski is committed to "upping variety" and offering choices to keep high school students interested in their daily meals during the school year. Proposed menu options for the pre-order model include 18 breakfast and 18 lunch options as well as a dozen side dish options. 

For breakfast, hungry learners can select from an array of cereals and muffins, while 'build your own' sandwich, salad, pizza, or yogurt parfait options will keep lunches varied and customizable throughout the week. Side dish options include applesauce, hash browns and roasted garbanzo beans as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.  Specialty items including Asian chicken, pasta with marinara sauce and the OPRFHS rib sandwich will be available to D200 students as well.

All weekly meal packs come with detailed nutritional information. Cooking instructions are included with meals as some items come frozen and need to be reheated. In the future Piekarski hopes to add rotating weekly specials and ala carte menu options for students who prefer ordering more sporadically.

The D200 kitchens will continue to serve as vendors to D97 and D90 for the 2020-21 school year, but lunch plans for the elementary districts are still in flux. Piekarski indicated she is awaiting communication from the both districts about their plans for fall meal service.

"I feel like remote learning makes nutrition even more important," said Piekarski. "Children who are learning at a computer all day need healthy food. Feeding them a nutritious breakfast and lunch is essential. We are here to do that."

Job loss and reduced income resulting from the pandemic may qualify even more school aged children for free or reduced-price meals this year. Families meeting income eligibility guidelines are encouraged to fill out a National School Lunch Program application to receive free or reduced lunch pricing. Any student in the district can take advantage of the school lunch program — full price for five breakfasts and 5 lunches is $30 per week.

Contact:
Email: melissa@oakparkeats.com

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