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Central Kitchen Serves Up Student Nutrition
Homemade Hot Lunch
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Barbara Browning, Lead Cafeteria Assistant for the Fair Oaks Elementary campus, hands out a nutritious lunch as part of the district’s cafeteria program, Monday morning. Fair Oaks Elementary serves the most lunches of all the district’s campuses but it’s only a fraction of what the Central Kitchen is accustomed to serving during a typical school day. KIM VAN METER/THE LEADER

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OJUSD Director of Nutritional Services, Angie Cazares, pictured doing the heavy lifting in the Central Kitchen as the unsung heroes of the cafeteria services work hard to provide delicious and nutritious homemade food for the district’s lunch program. Every morning at 5 a.m. the cafeteria cooks are up and firing up the kitchen to have lunch ready for all district school sites. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
The unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic are the people quietly going about their duties, helping others, and trying to think outside-of-the-box to move forward in an uncertain time.

The Oakdale Joint Unified School District’s Central Kitchen staff personifies that dedication as they shoulder the challenges inherent to serving nutritious and delicious meals to those who need it most.

In a typical school year, the Central Kitchen serves 1,500 students per day within the district but since COVID-19 has shuttered school campuses and required distance-learning protocols, the kitchen staff has seen a significant drop in the number of meals served.

Currently, between seven district campuses, the Central Kitchen is serving approximately 150 meals per day as distance learning has changed the way staff can provide nutritious meals.

The school lunch breakdown, give or take a few, is as follows: Fair Oaks Elementary: 39; Cloverland Elementary: 34; Oakdale High School: 32; Sierra View Elementary: 26; Magnolia Elementary: 26; Oakdale Junior High: 16; East Stanislaus: 2.

For OJUSD Director of Nutritional Services, Angie Cazares, the responsibility of finding new ways to get food to the kids who rely upon a well-balanced meal is one that keeps her and her staff on their toes.

“It’s a day-by-day basis. We prepare the week prior for the following week,” she explained. “We have to wait until we see what we provided that day so we know how much we need for the following day and then we increase that number by 10. Basically, we estimate the best that we can but it’s a process that’s changing on a daily basis.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue — how to provide enough food for those in need, without over-producing and creating waste, when the traditional method of calculating how many meals are needed has gone out the window.

“If we don’t plan ahead, we could run out of meals but we’ve always been able to provide a meal for those who show up and need one,” Cazares said.

According to research released by the Food Research and Action Center, COVID-19 has deepened the hunger crisis as many households relied upon the free and reduced lunch program in the public school systems to bridge the gap between available food resources for school-age children.

Statistically, hungry children cannot focus on schoolwork and tend to fall behind in comparison to their well-fed peers.

But COVID-19 has changed the landscape for parents as well as the schools, making it more difficult to receive services.

Some working parents have responded that they have no way to transport their distance-learning children during the day and others have shared that in a one-vehicle family, the working family member has access to the vehicle, leaving the rest of the family stuck at home.

Cazares and her staff go out of their way to help if they can, saying, “We do what we can to help within our limitations.”

To that end, parents with transportation issues who have reached out to the Central Kitchen have worked out a solution of weekly pick-ups, instead of daily, making it easier for the family to receive lunch.

“We really try to work out something if we can. Parents can call the Central Kitchen and we can work together,” Cazares added.

Another concern is that parents might not even be aware that the district is still offering the lunch pick up.

The district sent out notifications and the Central Kitchen staff made phone calls to let parents know but with so much information coming at parents in this new environment, it’s easy to get lost in the mix.

“We’ve really tried several different ways to reach out to parents,” Cazares said, adding, “but we still have approximately 300 people who haven’t responded who were on the program last year.”

Hope springs eternal as Cazares encourages parents to fill out their free and reduced lunch application for this year if they haven’t done so already.

“That way, if the schools reopen, that’s one less thing you need to worry about because it’s done,” she said.

For the Central Kitchen and lunchtime cafeteria staff, it’s all about the kids getting a good meal but what they miss the most is the smiles.

“The staff enjoys seeing the kids and the kids miss us, too. It’s really heartwarming.”

Pick up times for the lunch delivery is:

Elementary school sites, 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Junior high/high school sites, 11:40 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.

For more information on the free and reduced lunch program, call the OJUSD Central Kitchen at 209-847-9666.