Feeding Kids During a Pandemic: Lamoille North School Food Director Karyl Kent

Posted on June 10, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light, like never before, on the incredible work done by school nutrition staff. When schools closed their doors, they had less than a week to completely reimagine their distribution models and keep students fed and nourished. Vermont FEED is honored to share some voices from the frontline school nutrition programs that so many families depend on. There's so much innovation, creativity, and hard work happening right now— but that happens every day in our schools’ cafeterias, pandemic or not. Hear firsthand how schools are adapting, keeping kids nourished, and dreaming big. First up, Karyl Kent.

Karyl Kent, Food Service Director for the Lamoille North School DistrictKaryl Kent is the Food Service Director for the Lamoille North School District, which includes the six towns of Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson, and Waterville with five elementary schools, the Lamoille Union Middle School, Lamoille Union High School, and the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center.

What are you doing right now to serve the families in your community? Tell us about your program and how you have needed to pivot.

We jumped right in and decided to start off with curbside pickup. And two days later, we moved into delivery by bus route. So, we're serving around 850 kids a day. On Mondays, we send out one breakfast and one lunch for each child. On Tuesday and Thursday, we send out two breakfasts and two lunches per student. Friday is a work from home day for our staff.

Right in the beginning, it was such a big unknown—we had no idea how many meals to prepare for. We planned for the worst and we way overproduced. And then it was a matter of figuring out what to do with all the extra food, which was to give it away to the families and keep honing in on the numbers.

And we learned to order all the to-go containers we can! We have a storeroom for them right now. I just buy whatever I can find. And the same thing with the pre-prepackaged food items  that everybody's using—like fruit cups and baby carrots. When the baby carrots sold out, that wasn’t a problem. We have a farm. I just called Sam Rowley [Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Instructor, Green Mountain Tecnology & Career Center] for carrots! The school chef asked, “What are we going to do with those whole carrots?” It was simple: put them in the food processor, make carrot coins, and it was easy. They're fantastic. I asked Sam if he would plant spinach and greens for us, so we could start using those, too.

What are some ways you’ve seen your staff/team come together and creatively address a challenge you’re experiencing?

Our staff have really stepped up and taken leadership roles. And they're innovative and creative thinkers. They think on their feet. I've been really amazed and impressed and inspired by them. They’re the boots on the ground. They're practical. They see what's going on. They're thinking about things from a kid's point of view. It's been really inspiring to see some of the innovations that have come from my team. That's been a big benefit of all of this: to see people rise.

The team loads up the bus to prepare for a day of deliveries.

What are your favorite menu items that are working in your new system?

We've been doing a lot of hot meals. The parents are so grateful to be getting really nourishing, hot meals. This crisis is not just about sending food to kids, it's about nourishing them. We're not sending prepackaged snack foods. We made chicken and biscuits today—our chef braised the meat… it was beautiful and made from scratch. Those kinds of things: the casseroles, lasagnas, raviolis, mac and cheese, shepherds pie. 

And on Thursdays, our chef even sends out a big breakfast with bacon, scrambled eggs, home fries, donut holes one day, and then homemade banana bread another day. It's a big weekly farmer's breakfast. He's very proud of that. It's impressive.

And we send a little “cheat-sheet” home with all the instructions for reheating and refrigerating.  It also includes a list of resources for families so they can find support for other things they may be needing right now.

Has your meal participation increased? Stayed the same? Reduced? Why do you think this is the case?

It's increased. We started with about 250 meals that first day, and since have gone up to feeding 850 children a day. When I went back and looked at our typical participation numbers, it's somewhere around 750 a day district-wide. So right now, we're sending food to a lot of siblings who are not in school yet. We coordinated outreach with the Lamoille County Hunger Council to get word out about free meals for children to daycare centers and preschools. The numbers keep inching up, up, up.

Karyl and her team assembled these "Work of Heart" build-your-own salad bar kits, featuring several local ingredients, to send home to kids. What are your community relationships that are proving really valuable in weathering this storm?

I think the biggest connection is with the Lamoille County Hunger Council—they’ve been a huge support in getting the word out. 

And Salvation Farms has been supplying us with great produce—we got 64 20-pound bags of potatoes last Friday! They connected us with Black River Produce who had products they needed to move  before sell-by or freeze-by dates. So I was able to buy a lot of local yogurt, fresh Maplebrook mozzarella cheese, and North Country Bacon at prices we could afford.

We offer additional grocery items during the meal pick-ups for families. We've been getting biweekly deliveries of assorted root vegetables in two-pound bags from Salvation Farms, and we've been able to hand those out to our families at curbside pickup. It’s the same for all the potatoes we get from Chappelle’s—we're packaging those in 5-pound bags and handing those out, as well.

We hear that incorporating local foods into school meals has been more challenging right now. Has anything been working for you? Can you share any tips?

We're lucky to have the staffing to be able to still make a lot of dishes from scratch. We had a ton of beets in the refrigerator when this all happened. We had been planning to use them for Harvest of the Month taste tests, and we asked ourselves, “What are we going to do with all of these?” So: We pickled them! We made two 5-gallon pails filled with pickled beets. We portioned them up and sent them out. That was truly rewarding. The kids loved it. Also coleslaw, carrot coins, tossed salad in little Ziplock bags… Depending on how much labor you have, and how much time you have to portion and package all these things, these can be great ways to use local produce.

Yogurt has been another thing that's been really, really hard to get in small packaging. So we've been buying 17-pound containers and portioning it ourselves, which is a lot of extra work. We got the Green Mountain Creamery Greek yogurt, and we add maple syrup and vanilla into it, and it’s delicious. But again, we have the people to do that work.

In light of this crisis, or even before COVID-19, what are your big dreams for your program? What would you like to see on the other end of this?

We’re in the beginning stages of the cafeteria remodel that we've been looking forward to for two years, and the cafeteria is all torn up! I don't know if anyone's even going to see the cafeteria in the fall—they might be eating in the classrooms. But it's really given me pause to think about how we serve food and the food waste from overproduction. I'm dreaming about an online ordering system so kids can order online the day before, how we simplify our menus, and cook to order like a restaurant. 

Also, I think this is our opportunity to start highlighting more plant-based menus. We’re in Lamoille County, and it's very “meat and potatoes”. But I'd love to see us move in a more plant-based direction, and have kids embrace those kinds of foods. That's been my dream for a long time. And I kind of see this as my chance.

This is a great moment to teach about sustainability and food systems, and valuing and treasuring our local farms. We were in the process of opening up our school farm for more field trips and community activities and showing the county what a treasure it is. We want farms to come out as the hero in all of this, too.

Karyl created an inspiring graphic to thank her school nutrition team for the hard work and dedication since schools closed in March!

Original interview on May 6, 2020. Photos provided by Karyl Kent.