Fifth grader Alijah Liserio, 11, prefers regular milk with his school lunch.
The DeLeon Elementary School student is one of thousands the district feeds every day, but that meal is delivered a bit differently since COVID-19 rocked public education in March.
Since reopening campuses in September, Alijah and his peers have eaten their lunch in the classroom, though that model varies from campus to campus.
At the beginning of the day, Alijah said he notifies his teacher if he will be needing a school provided lunch. His teacher then tells the cafeteria staff who delivers the meals right to their classroom.
“It was hard to get used to but after a week or so I was getting used to it,” Alijah said.
Victoria school district offers free meals to students who are learning in person and remotely.
The district will continue to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students through the end of the 2020-21 school year, regardless of the students income or eligibility for the free and reduced meal program. The free meals to elementary students come through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program. The Texas Department of Agriculture allowed for that option to middle and high school campuses.
Kitchen Manager Myra Powell oversees meal production at Crain Elementary School. The campus provides meals in person and remotely as a meal distribution site.
Prekindergarten through second graders are fed in their classrooms while third through fifth graders eat in the cafeteria.
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the cafeteria, students are required to wear masks until they sit down and eat. They also social distance in line and while they are seated, Powell said.
Meal trays are ready to go for students when they are in line to avoid student touching surfaces. When they sit down, they are divided by plastic barriers and sit about 6 feet apart, Powell said.
“That’s been working out real good since kids have been coming back to campus,” she said.
Since reopening, the Crain staff serves about 360 students a day, Powell said. They offer breakfast in the hallways before students enter the classroom to help with social distancing.
Students who are learning remotely can pick up their meals at the back of the cafeteria from 12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. after the on-campus lunch rush.
Powell hands out about five or six meals a day from the back loading dock, which is nowhere near the number before schools reopened.
“I had been serving a large number and it dropped down,” she said. Before reopening in September, Powell handed out about 500 meals a day to students.
Remote students receive hot meals like students on campus along with a cold breakfast such as cereal and milk.
Tuesday afternoon, Powell sat ready at the back of the cafeteria waiting for hungry students to arrive. As a regular car pulled up, she scurried to the kitchen and boxed up three students’ worth of meals. Parent Brittany Hogue popped out of the car, signed her name on a blank sheet of paper before returning to her vehicle, food in hand.
She was the first of two to arrive at Crain for meals.
“We have the food ready,” Powell said. “They just don’t come here.”
By 1 p.m., Powell said she didn’t anticipate anyone else arriving for the meal distribution, but she left the sign in sheet outside until 1:30 p.m. Just in case.
“I wish more parents would come and take advantage of the opportunity here,” she said. “That’s why we’re here, we want to feed those kids.”
With COVID-19 continuing to spread, the district had to close two campuses, Torres and DeLeon elementary schools. Those students, who will now learn remotely for two weeks, can use sites like Crain to pick up their next meal.
DeLeon Elementary School closed temporarily because of COVID-19 cases among its staff, but Alijah is covered when it comes to food. His mother Eva Liserio said he eats all his meals at home, but when he returns to school later this month, he’ll go back to eating school lunches.
“He would rather eat at school instead of taking a lunch,” Liserio said.
When Alijah returned to school in September, Liserio had no concerns about him eating at school because she taught him how to be safe. She reminds her 11-year-old to wash his hands before and after eating, don’t let anyone borrow from his tray or borrow from someone else’s tray and not to wander around and socially distance.
During lunch time at DeLeon, before its COVID-19 closure, the kitchen employees arrived at Alijah’s classroom with carts filled with food trays and cartons of milk, both chocolate and regular. The students receive their tray and desired milk.
Each tray came loaded with a hot main dish like pizza, hamburgers or spaghetti. There is typically a side dish like french fries along with a fruit and vegetable.
Alijah said his favorite school lunch is a hamburger with french fries and regular milk, though he isn’t a huge fan of the fries because they taste “a little too potatoey.” He pairs it with regular milk because the chocolate is “too sweet” with his savory lunch option.
While the students are eating, Alijah’s teacher would play Kidz Bop music to pass the time and they can talk with each other.
Eating in the classroom has been peaceful compared to the noisy cafeteria Alijah experienced last year. He isn’t sure he ever wants it to go back to “normal.”
“I kind of like it more in the classroom,” he said.