UNSUNG HEROES School nutrition staff: feeding multitudes

Tuesday, May 12, 2020
Bedford County Nutrition Department managers, left to right, Jessica Hendrix, Carolyn Adcock, Bethany Tucker, Kecia Johnson and Beverly Vaughn take time out for this photo, which was to honor them as being among Bedford County's “unsung heroes” during the pandemic. The cafeteria managers have coordinated and worked within the schools feed program since doors closed in March, due to COVID-19. Not pictured is cafeteria manager Tonya Beckman.
Submitted photo

In early March, Bedford County Schools Superintendent Don Embry announced that classes were cancelled indefinitely, per Gov. Bill Lee’s orders, due to COVID-19. Among school personnel choosing to remain on the front lines, as “essential workers” are the school nutrition employees, who, along with an army of volunteers and educators, have since distributed nearly 200,000 meals to kids.

School nutrition managers Jessica Hendrix, Carolyn Adcock, Bethany Tucker, Kecia Johnson, Beverly Vaughn and Tonya Beckman say you have to really see the process in action to believe the results of this federally-funded child nutrition effort. They say the whole event can easily well up tears of joy in those working the pick-ups.

Janet Clarkson, school nutrition supervisor, admit’s how it’s not been an easy task. The numbers served, she adds, demonstrate the dedication this school system has to its children, she says.

“The managers working have kept their crews motivated, and even when times get rough, they wade through it all with a smile! We also have employees that are not able to work that continuously cheer us on from home. It is definitely a group effort!” says Clarkson.

Their duties have been to make sure there’s plenty of items like chips, applesauce and milk available at pick-up time. “Serving Day Extravaganza” is an all out hands-on-deck event with generally about 3,000 plus people driving by schools and picking up food. It takes an entire village, the cafeteria workers say.

This latest effort has not been your typical food service scenario for these nutrition employees. This spring, they’ve had to mask their faces and suit up to their best abilities in an effort to protect themselves from being exposed to the coronavirus.

No doubt, some have had some worries about possibly contracting the virus. But, the cafeterias staff have stated they just try to see the bigger picture, which is making sure no child goes hungry while school is out of session.

While some might say ‘it’s kind of their job,’ school officials say they’ve gone beyond the call of duty, taking great risks within their mission. These non-certified workers realize they have an important job, which is continuing to feed children who depend greatly on the meals provided by schools for their nutritional needs.

In 2018, the USDA estimated that nearly 12 percent of U.S. households were what it terms, “food insecure” at some point. While rising employment rates helped off-set those numbers then, the COVID-19 pandemic has since increased largely unemployment among families.

Superintendent Embry recently praised the work being done by the child nutrition department to assist families. “Janet Clarkson, our cafeteria managers, and our cafeteria staff have worked tirelessly to make sure that our children have been fed, Embry says. “We have been able to give back to our community and help our families who have been in need and I am proud of that.”

The workers Embry praises have gone on the front lines to make sure the food is ready and set for pick up at the respective six sites. Buses were being used to deliver items in the beginning of the pandemic, but the school system has since had to stop that transport, due to the increase risks of workers. Food pick ups have also been trimmed down to once-a-week.

Clarkson humbly notes it’s literally taken “a village,” to see this weekly event to fruition. As of today, school children are still being physically and even emotionally nourished.

“I have school nutrition employees that have all gone above and beyond to feed these kiddos.  They all work tirelessly.  We have about 30+ employees that have stuck it out with us through it all. Without them all, this endeavor would have never been possible!”