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Over the years, there have been many changes to the School Lunch Program.

Many of us remember the days of two lines and only one option - or the salad or soup and sandwich bar. Gone are those days, and students at Gothenburg Public Schools have a multitude of options to feed their hungry bellies when the lunch bell rings.

The concept came to school food services director Joni Jacobsen in 2011, when the kitchen and cafeteria were remodeled as a part of the larger school renovation. “I was asked how I saw the lunch area utilized, and I thought of a food court concept,” Jacobsen said. “This would allow students to go to different lines to choose what they would like.”

With four different line options and salad bars and a condiment bar offered to students on a daily basis, there is certainly something for everyone. On a typical day during the school year, approximately 600 meals are served to students in grades K- 12.

Earlier this year, when the Covid pandemic caused classes to go remote, the lunch program stepped into overdrive. Knowing that there was a need in the community for children to be fed, Jacobsen took to the drawing board to make sure that there was an option so kids wouldn’t go hungry. Forms were distributed to the school database allowing parents and guardians to order lunches for the week and weekend if needed.

With the help of some dedicated and motivated individuals, the school lunch bunch prepared and bagged more than 73,000 meals over the summer. “We had a great team, including maintenance, custodians and paras who pitched in to help prepare and deliver meals,” Jacobsen said of those who volunteered to help her team of six in the cafeteria.

The program was made possible through a waiver through the FDA that provided funding for the meals. Just a couple weeks ago, Jacobsen was informed that the waiver was extended through the end of the 2020-21 school year, which means there is no charge for any student who eats a meal at Gothenburg Public Schools.

“This is a great opportunity for all,” Jacobsen said. “Many have been or still are furloughed and this takes the worry out of finding funds to pay for breakfasts and lunches. Some are back to work, but still have “catching up” to do from when they were out of work.”

In a news release announcing the waiver extension, School Nutrition Association president Reggie Ross, SNS, spoke of how these funds would certainly benefit families and schools. “Families struggling to make ends meet can be assured that their students will have access to healthy school meals, whether they are learning at home or in school. School meal programs can remain focused on safely meeting nutritional needs of children in their communities without having to worry about burdensome regulations,” Ross said.

Families aren’t the only ones who are benefitting from this waiver. It has also allowed Jacobsen to look for alternative options in getting supplies and food delivered.

“Some items have not been accessible from our normal suppliers,” she said. “Manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with supplying some food and supply items, so our distributors are short.”

The waiver also speeds up meal distribution, reducing contact between students and staff, and improving safety by eliminating requirements to collect payment or verify student eligibility for free meals. Jacobsen said that many protocols have been put into place to ensure that everyone is safe during the lunch period.

“Face masks are required at GPS, my team wears gloves and we have plexiglass barriers between students and servers,” she said. “We have enforced social distancing when students pick up meals from the serving lines and how they sit in the cafeteria.” Additionally, Jacobsen said there were no self-serve options available.

“Condiments are pre-portioned and handed out by lunch staff,” she said.

Despite the protocols, Jacobsen said that there has been a good response to the options she’s made available to GPS students. Typically, there are two options per line during the school year, but this year, because of Covid and the extra care to ensure everyone’s safety, each line is offering pizza and one other option. Kids do have their favorites, though.

“Chicken alfredo, Mandarin chicken, cheeseburgers and pizza are definitely at the top of the list,” Jacobsen said.

The school lunch program has been a constant in a time of uncertainty for many, doing exactly what it is supposed to do: feed the kids. Jacobsen said that she received a message from a family this past summer that really brought everything full circle.

“Thank you for all of the hard work you have done! I know my family has personally been so grateful for this service. We haven’t had to buy milk and other groceries for the kids since we have gotten meals. This has helped cut our grocery bill tremendously so we can put the money we would have used for groceries to pay our utilities and rent. In such an uncertain time, your group has helped keep the lights on and us in our house. THANK YOU!”

The school lunch program is available to all students who attend Gothenburg Public Schools. If you have questions, contact Joni Jacobsen at joni.jacobsen@goswedes.org or call 308-537-3651, ext. 6127.

Contact Rebecca Steward at rebecca@gothenburgleader.com or call 308.537.9498