At the 14th Annual Champs Celebration, presented by Kalsec, the School Food Services Team was honored with a 2021 Champ Award which was sponsored by Humphrey Products and Lake Michigan Credit Union. [If you missed this event or want to experience it again, the full live-streamed video is available here throughout May. For the rest of this month, you also have an opportunity to honor one or more champions in your life with a gift made in their name. Click here to honor a champion you know!]
We met up with Resident District Manager Christina Haller over Zoom. Christina oversees the food services program for Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS). Since 1998, KPS has contracted with Chartwells to serve nutritional meals to the district’s 12,000+ students.
Christina went through Gull Lake Schools and then went on to Western Michigan University where she earned a degree in dietetics. She has been working with Chartwells for the past 21 years.
Alright, Christina: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
Congratulations to you and the entire School Food Services Team on your Champ award! How many team members do you have on staff?
We have around 140 in a given school year. Right now, we have 95 working. They all care about the kids. That’s why they work in the schools. As we are not currently doing things the way we typically do given the pandemic, our staff are not with kids as much as they’d like to be.
I think of the Kalamazoo Public Schools Transportation Department and all of the bus drivers as an extended part of our team. We couldn’t get our meals out to the sites without them. [Executive Supervisor for KPS Transportation Teri Aman received a Champ award in 2014 and you can read more about that here.]
The work of bus drivers and all you do in food services is hard enough. The pandemic adds another layer to deal with.
Yes, we’re following all the Covid-19 rules to keep staff safe, like maintaining six feet distance. That has all taken some adjusting. For example, we’ve had to open more kitchens, so we are preparing side salads in one kitchen and in another, we’re preparing frozen dinners like macaroni and cheese with broccoli. Something that can easily be heated up in a microwave.
What’s been most challenging for your team since the pandemic?
In the beginning there were so many unknowns. We were adapting to the changes as to what was being recommended at the time and also working with staff and their various comfort levels. But I think the most challenging thing, especially early on, was the purchasing of food. School districts were purchasing the same items and they were often out of stock and there were manufacturing issues so ordering was extremely challenging. We often had to change up what we had planned to purchase and go a different route.
Things are going really well now and we are used to what we’re doing. We just need to keep making sure we’re getting the word out as to where, when, and how families can access the service. [Currently, meal pick-ups are on Tuesdays and Thursdays and provide enough food for seven day’s worth of breakfast and lunch meals. Here’s just one of many places you can learn about the KPS Pick Up Meal Service.]
Meals are more than just about eating. As our kids aren’t gathered together, they miss out on the communal experience and opportunity to connect with others. There’s a sense of loss that goes with that.
When we’ve been meal planning, we consider the calendar and look for ways we can make it fun and different, whether it’s a holiday or just adding an exciting element into their day. For instance, last spring KVCC helped us with a grant from the Michigan Fitness Foundation. We were able to include beachballs, books, and other giveaways in meal packs every Friday for a few weeks. This spring, in partnership with the United Dairy Industry of Michigan we are running a two-week promotion by putting golden tickets in some of the meal packets for students to receive give-aways. Organizations have been very giving and supportive.
What’s been most surprising?
What we have had to do is different than the typical school lunch. We’ve had to figure out how to provide healthy and nutritious food on an emergency basis. Our team members are essential workers. We know we are important but we’ve felt even more important during this time.
A deepening realization that you and your team are essential.
As you know, the pandemic has created an increase in child hunger not only in our community but throughout the nation. How do you see this playing out in our area?
We aim to make the food available to as many families as possible and with as little burden as possible to them. That is why we have 24 sites right now. And we are able to make that possible with the help of others. We’re grateful for that.
When it comes to the meals offered we want to make them available to all children. It can be for convenience and also one less thing that a parent has to worry about.
We are also part of the Kalamazoo County Hunger-Free Community Coalition. We partner to assure that we are utilizing our resources and federal funds to the best of our abilities and not being duplicative and wasteful. We ask, where best can we focus our efforts?
We kept this in mind as we were determining meal pick up location. Where are our students located? We wanted sites that are easy to walk to and get the food whether parents are there or not.
…A lot changed in terms of who can pick up the food. Thanks to the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] changing and extending its waiver, we have greater flexibility to feed our kids. With the waiver change, the child doesn’t need to be there. It also allows for others, like CIS and volunteers, to pick up for others. Right now, there is not a set time frame to pick items up and multiple days of food are available during each pick up. Every meal pack includes breakfast and lunch. And thanks to a Michigan 10 cents per meal matching grant we’ve been able to include fresh Michigan produce when available and in season, like apples, peaches, pears, and plums.
That is wonderful!
Yes, the support of others has been helpful. Another example of that is that we’ve had two dietetic interns from Western Michigan University working with us this year. They made a series of videos showing how to prepare meals from items included in our food distributions. Another young woman, Paris Woods, started doing this even before that. She attends Loy Norrix High School and is interested in the culinary arts. Last year she started making videos, teaching others how to cook meals using the items that are in our food distribution. [You can learn more about Paris and her cooking videos by clicking on this WWMT news clip and this article on the KVCC website.]
What a terrific idea! So let’s switch gears a little and talk a bit about you. How are you holding up during this pandemic?
Good. Probably like everyone else, it felt especially challenging at the beginning as we’ve never been through this before. Plus, add on the fear of the unknown. For me, it’s definitely been a change in lifestyle. We have two sons and both are involved in sports. We are typically a busy family. Last spring was not busy at all with everything closed. I’m happy things are beginning to open up.
What have you learned about yourself?
That patience is important. We do a lot of planning, so patience is needed as plans change often in this environment. I’m trying to be—and I think we all are—more open and thinking outside-of-the-box to have the best program possible.
What are you currently reading?
I’m not the hugest reader, and I haven’t had much time lately. When I get the chance, I read fitness and sports magazines. I’ve been exercising in my spare time and try to do something every day. I also play coed soccer.
What’s your favorite thing to cook right now? Any go-to meal you’ve found yourself preparing during this pandemic?
We did a lot of cooking when things were shut down. We made homemade sub buns and pizza. I’m a pretty healthy eater, so I like fish and salads. Working in food, I have a hard time thinking what to make for dinner because we are thinking about food all day!
Baked, broiled, or sauteed?
I know this is not one of the questions, however, mine is grilled. We grill a lot of food, my favorite being vegetables, such as zucchini. For Father’s Day, we bought my husband a Blackstone grill, which we have been making hibachi and breakfast on it.
What is your favorite word or phrase right now?
“I ❤️ My Senior.” The past year has been a very difficult time being a student and senior. Being a kid is hard enough and having to miss out on certain opportunities schools provide makes it more challenging.
What is a question you recently asked or perhaps have been asking a lot lately?
What happens next?
I think that’s question we’re all asking!
Yes. What will happen next? How do we make changes when students come back to school? How can we improve and provide the best service possible? How can we make sure that everyone has what they need?
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
My dad, Tom. He passed away eight years ago … He was a teacher in Gull Lake Community Schools. He taught both in middle and high school. He also coached basketball and golf. He was funny and made people laugh. My dad was a really nice person. He dad taught me how to be a better person, to be independent, and work hard for things.
Thank you, Christina, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.