Each week, the Selah School District’s nutrition department packs approximately 18,000 bagged meals for students.
The task is not a simple one, according to director of Nutrition Services Laura Ozanich. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Selah School District, like others across the country, has had to reinvent its meal distribution system.
This evolution began March 13, 2020, when schools statewide were forced to close their doors to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“We went from serving meals in schools to trying to find the right packaging,” said Ozanich. “What do we put the meals in? How do we transport it? It was completely throwing up in the air what we knew and then quickly responding.”
Within one week of schools closing, the nutrition department began distributing free bagged meals to the community via school buses, a service that continued for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year and resumed last fall.
However, once Selah students began returning to classrooms, the nutrition department once again had to pivot. With many students attending school for only part of the day, the nutrition department began distributing bagged lunches and breakfasts at schools for students to take home.
It takes an array of employees, student organizations and volunteers to prepare thousands of meals each week.
Since accepting a position in the nutrition department in early March, Barb Petrea has played an integral role in the meal packaging operation at Selah. Among her responsibilities is orchestrating the meal packaging sessions that take place each Wednesday afternoon.
Since March 3, members of various student organizations have assisted with the bagging of frozen food items. In exchange for bagging 3,000 food items over the course of several hours, student organizations receive money that can be used to fund their club.
Katie Ramos, a Selah junior, recently spent an afternoon bagging meals with fellow members of the high school’s swim team.
“I think it’s nice, as a sports team, to give back to the community because they support us so well,” she said. “It’s our opportunity to give back to them.”
Although these meal-packing sessions often serve as a fundraising opportunity for teams and clubs, some students have chosen to volunteer their simply for the benefit of the community.
“They see that connection of how volunteering really helps,” Ozanich said. “They can see the big picture of helping our community.”
Petrea, too, possesses that community-minded attitude.
“There’s no better job. If you’re not helping people, then in my opinion there’s no joy in it.”
Petrea also credits her fellow nutrition department employees for the continual success of the meal distribution program.
“They have to be a chameleon,” she said. “They have to just adapt to what is happening and they do it with such grace. And they don’t complain; they just get it done. It wouldn’t be as great as it is or as smooth as it is without their dedication and love to the children that they serve.”
Petrea encourages members of the Selah community who may be struggling with food insecurity to pick up a free meal provided by the nutrition department.
“If you are hungry, there is no reason to be hungry,” she said. “Food insecurity is such a difficult thing and that should be the least of people’s worries.”
Ozanich says that meals will continue being distributed at no cost for the remainder of the school year, with another free meal program set to take place in the summer.