Wamego among school districts honored for high-quality meal service

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) – Wamego USD 320 is among three Kansas school districts that were nationally honored for their high-quality summer meal services.

The Kansas State Department of Education says three districts have been recognized by the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service for their high-quality meal programs.

KSDE said the USDA’s Turnip the Beet award recognizes sponsors within the Summer Food Service Program and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option which go above and beyond requirements to serve high-quality meals to students while school is out over the summer months.

For the 2021 summer, KSDE said 84 sponsors from across the nation qualified for either gold, silver or bronze Turnip the Beet awards. Only 14 of those qualified for the gold award, 54 for the silver award and 16 for the bronze award.

The Department noted that each awardee received recognition in the SFSP category. It said Haven USD 312 received gold while Gardner Edgerton USD 231 and Wamego USD 320 both received silver.

KSDE said the districts highlight local produce e in their programs.

“These are some of our shining stars,” Bob Depew, Farm to Plate project director for the Kansas State Department of Education, said. “They go beyond the level of expectation.”

USD 312 food service director Sheree Jones said Haven hosts a communitywide event in May that focuses on all farm-fresh items served within the district. She noted that the event draws about 600 people.

“Our high school FFA and ag groups provided hands-on educational booths that included live animals, farm equipment to teach farm safety, and a planting station where the kids learned about how food grows from seed to harvest,” Jones said. “There were hay wagon rides, and the physical education teacher had over 10 activity booths that included a maze, four-square volleyball and an obstacle course. The highlight of the day was a barbecue featuring local beef burgers cooked by our local police, fire and paramedics.”

Even during the kickoff event, KSDE said Haven featured locally produced items, including whole-grain hamburger buns made by a local baker and fresh lettuce and tomatoes grown in the district’s greenhouse. Ice cold 1% milk came from the local Hiland Dairy and Rolling Moo – a local ice cream store – rolled up real local milk treats for dessert.

In the summer of 2021, the Department noted that the district served 300 grab-and-go breakfasts and 300 grab-and-go lunches. It also said the district’s nutrition services department relies a lot on local produce.

“In this day and time, it’s getting harder and harder to get even the basics,” Jones said. “We can ease the burden of supply chains if people realize they can go local. These are our families. It comes full circle. The school supports the farmers, and the farmers support the school.”

Amy Droegemeier, director of nutrition services for Gardner Edgerton USD 231, said every week during the summer, she and her staff members would hand out meal kits that contained 14 meals to 2,500 kids. Which is a total of 30,000 meals per week.

Droegemeier noted that the district served curbside meal kits on Tuesdays, with staff’s day starting at 10 am and often not ending until 6 pm

KSDE said Gardner Edgerton families who participated could choose from three different meal kit options which included students’ favorite entries, vegetarian options, and creative options.

“This variety allowed our families – especially those with multiple children – to tailor their selections to their weekly plans and children’s appetites,” Droegemeier said.

In addition to the kits, the Department said students received half gallons of 1% chocolate milk and half gallons of 1% white milk. It said families could choose their preferences when they preordered. The district gave out about 5,000 half-gallons of milk per week. It said the kits included local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

“We had some really great help from our community partners, too,” Droegemeier said. “Walmart loaned us 20 carts (to help with curbside deliveries), and Price Chopper would sell us items at cost if we couldn’t get it. Teachers helped, too. It was a really great partnership throughout the community.”

From March 2020 through July 2021, the district said it served 1.6 million meals with about 40 to 45 food service workers serving food. This summer, the district will return to the traditional on-site meal model.

Over in Wamego USD 320, Laura Fails said she served not only as the food service director this past summer, but also wrote scripts and starred in demonstration videos filmed at the district’s kitchen. She said it was all part of the Cooks and Books program – a partnership between the district and the library to ensure kids were well fed and educated all summer long in 2021.

KSDE said Wamego decided to not serve daily meals for the summer of 2021 but instead held two distribution days on Mondays and Thursdays. On Mondays, it said participants got three days’ worth of food and on Thursdays, they would get four days’ worth of meals. Participants could pick the meals up from the city park or the district kitchen.

KSDE noted that the meals included fresh fruits and vegetables as well.

“We were able to incorporate fresh, local produce to the best of our ability,” Fails said. “We are a small, rural community, so we included as much local garden produce as possible since many of our participants are familiar with agriculture and farming.”

In total, the District said it served over 50,100 meals during the 9-week Summer Food Service program.

Fails said she also worked with the library to introduce the Cooks and Books program. On Tuesdays, she said children could visit the library to pick up a take and make bag, which included ingredients, a recipe card and nutrition education material about the recipe of the week. She and her husband created a demonstration video for each week.

Fails noted that the 6-week program also included locally sourced ingredients. For example, she said local honey was used in a recipe for energy bites and local strawberries were used for strawberry banana splits. She said the videos included recommended library books based on the recipe theme. There were book recommendations for every age level – even adults.

“We started out thinking we’d make 50 bags for each day,” Fails said. “Within 10 minutes on the first day, we were out.”

KSDE said that Fails and her team increased the number of Make and Take bags to 80. In total, it said there were nearly 500 bags.

Before the Cooks and Books program took off, Fails also said toolkits were given to families which included measuring cups, spatulas, a cutting board and more.

“We were aware some of our families may not have every item they need in their kitchen to make the recipe,” Fails said.

KSDE noted that there were 100 toolkits handed out to families.

Just as learning does not end when school lets out, KSDE said neither does good nutrition. It said SFSP provides free, nutritious meals and snacks to help children get the nutrition they need. It said schools, public agencies and private nonprofit organizations can apply to become a supporter and be reimbursed for food service to enhance an education or recreation program. Applications for the program are due May 1.

For more information about how to become a sponsor, click HERE.

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