Serving the Masses

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, school districts across the Valley, state, and nation were pushed to rewire their entire structures of curriculum to adapt to distanced virtual learning. With this new normal came the opportunity for Brownsville ISD to take the initiative and provide food for their students through their BISD Food and Nutrition Services, a self-funded federal meal program completely independent from the education dollars BISD receives.

Brownsville ISD believes that every student deserves a healthy future and is committed to providing nutritious food to students, especially during the course of COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, BISD has given more than 750,000 healthy meals to children.

Laura Zelda Villarreal, director of nutrition at Brownsville ISD, has overseen the meal distribution. In addition to the already present challenge of adapting to the new normal, Villarreal was presented with another task — finding a way to ensure that students across the district were fed.

“When the pandemic began and our district switched to virtual instruction, we applied for the Seamless Summer Option, which allowed us to feed anyone 0-18 years of age,” she wrote in an email. “Our students’ participation with breakfast, lunch, and supper determines our budget. This type of program required students be in the vehicle to ensure that federal guidelines were being met. Students were fed one meal type (breakfast/lunch) per student present.”

Villarreal recalls the community being hesitant to participate initially, mostly due to the uncertainty in the safety protocols being followed. Eventually, word got around about the staff taking precautions by wearing personal protective gear such as masks and gloves as well as following CDC social distancing guidelines. Brownsville ISD saw more participation from the community.

“During the 2019-20 school year, we distributed about 30,000 breakfasts per day and about 35,000 lunches per day,” Villarreal wrote. “During the pandemic we were only feeding 20 percent of our usual meal counts and that severely impacted our budget.”

Despite the obstacles they faced, BISD Food and Nutrition has been able to provide roughly 847,825 meals, consisting of breakfast, lunch, and supper as of September 2020.

Villarreal admits she was nervous about the unknowns and risks that their department could potentially face. The fact that they could possibly be coming into contact with this invisible virus —  especially through asymptomatic carriers — was overwhelming.

This rewarding experience has also been worrisome and stressful at times. Villarreal expressed the concerns she faced on a daily basis, one of them being the ever-rising RGV temperatures and the shortage of canopies.

“The supply chain of food was impacted, which caused shortages of goods,” she recalled. “Remember when we headed to the store and saw those empty shelves? Now imagine trying to purchase food for thousands of students [during those times].”

Villarreal worried day in and day out for the safety of her staff out on the front lines and that deliveries would not reach their destinations on time.

She acknowledged the bravery of the 150 food service staff members who answered the call to play a role in helping the community from March to August.

“I am beyond blessed to have an amazing, dedicated, and selfless team,” she wrote. “Our staff along with the Transportation Department personnel started distributing meals via curbside in the South Texas sun.”

At the start of the new school year, all 474 staff in food service are back to providing nourishment for students during these difficult times.

This district pulled together to work toward one common goal, and the group effort is not over just yet. Villarreal stresses the importance of student participation as it impacts the funding for Brownsville ISD Food and Nutrition directly.

“We are proud to continue meeting a basic, yet essential service at this incredibly challenging time for so many families in our community,” she wrote. “We truly appreciate the Brownsville ISD community’s involvement and invite them to keep participating in the free meal programs and look forward to their continued support.”

How did the Brownsville ISD free meal program impact you? #JoinTheConversation at facebook.com/rgvisionmagazine.