Flexible meals continue for ECISD

Ector County ISD students can continue to receive home delivery of meals through June 2022 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also has extended flexibilities to school nutrition departments on meal service times. There are restrictions on how late meals can be served in the afternoon.

Brandon Reyes, director of School Nutrition for ECISD, said they can provide breakfast and lunch at the same time, or serve meals in the classroom like they have been.

“Additionally, there’s the waiver of non-congregate feeding, meaning we can serve the meals in a grab-and-go setting. Typically, USDA requires that the kids congregate to eat as part of the requirements for the program, but they’ve allowed for us to serve those meals that are non-congregate setting, so you can pick up the meal and leave,” Reyes said.

“Congregate feeding has always been a component for any of their programs. …,” Reyes added.

He said USDA feels eating together brings a sense of community to children.

“Then lastly, parents can still pick up meals for their children without them present,” he said.

Depending on their size, some schools may start serving lunch at 10:30 a.m.

“It makes it very interesting. I think the biggest victory is that they did that so early. Last year, we had no idea what we were going to be able to do up until we were already in school for a couple of weeks. And then they said oh hey look, we’re going to go ahead and extend these flexibilities out through the rest of the school year, which is great for those schools who hadn’t started yet. But since we had started, it made it a little interesting in how we approached that. We’re very glad that they did that early because it allows us to plan properly. It gives us enough time. …,” he said.

With home delivery, Reyes said, a request for proposals has to be put out because depending upon how many deliveries they’re going to make, help could be needed to supplement the volunteers.

“We have had help from the volunteers. It’s a big, big, big, big help, of course. We alternate between the two whenever we can. … There’s not a charge with the volunteers, but there is a charge for each drop from whoever the vendor is. I think it’s going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of between $9.50 to $10 per drop. But the good news is we’re providing families seven days’ worth of breakfast and lunch meals,” Reyes said.

Ultimately, as long as the reimbursement covers the food, labor and cost to deliver it’s not that expensive.

“Even if we only made like a penny off of it or whatever we would still do it, so that’s the good thing. But we’ve been able to leverage our department to utilize the services at a much more cost effective basis. The volunteers, they help us tremendously. They also help offset” the cost, Reyes said.

“… Basically, if you take all of the revenue we make from the meals we serve, which means, grab and go, home meal delivery, classroom, cafeteria they all go into a specific revenue pot. And as long as our total costs don’t exceed our revenues, then we’re fine as a total program. We’re a large enough school district to have enough participation to where we’re able to do things some school districts might not be able to as easily. …,” he added.

Reyes said his department has to be self-sustaining to maximize the return to the children and parents in ECISD.

“We must be cognizant of being excellent stewards of the public’s funds. It’s a really difficult thing to do,” Reyes said.

He added that they started off serving fewer meals than they had in the past.

“… It was a little worrisome at first, but luckily we’ve been able to do the things we have and increase participation; the whole meal delivery program … And we’re serving about the same percentage of students that we did pre-pandemic,” Reyes said.

He added that it’s been that way since mid-January or February.

“It hasn’t come without its challenges. We’ve been under audit from the state (Department of Agriculture). We receive routine audits every three to five years. … There’s two things that didn’t stop in the pandemic: it’s feeding children and audits.”

Additionally, the department is audited by an external certified public accounting firm that the district hires.

He noted that although it’s difficult to juggle everything, he wants people to know that the department is operating efficiently.

“… Those audits and reviews are very important for our program because they help provide a learning experience for us on what the expectation is from the state and then how well we’re doing. … “

Reyes said his department provides about 32,000 meals a day. That’s about 14,000 breakfasts and 15,000 lunches per day across all programs, which is about 1,000 less than pre-pandemic.

“But we’re also 1,900 less students, so I think it’s actually a higher participation rate than in years past, overall,” Reyes said.

Asked whether cafeterias will be used next year, he said his department is working with each campus’ principals and leadership to follow whatever the district would like to do.

“We’re set up and can continue to provide meals in the classroom …,” he added.

The department also will be providing meals during the summer at summer feeding sites. He added that his team has been working tirelessly to do that.

“District leadership has been very good at recognizing that and trying to do what’s best for them, so I’m very grateful that they’ve been so supportive of our department throughout this.

In a normal year, at the start of the school year it’s usually pretty bad. “We usually start out pretty short-handed. But they were able to turn the turnover rate into a positive.

“Because if we weren’t serving that many meals, we couldn’t technically have that many people on staff. And so what I did is, instead of saying … we’re down 50, we need 50. We’re saying hey we’re only serving this many meals, we can afford that 50 so we lock in where we’re at,” he said.

“We’ve also been utilizing meals per labor hour standards and applying that to the campuses so that we know how many staff members to have at each kitchen based off of the total number of meals served. So instead of at a campus saying, okay I have five people on my campus one has left can you give me a replacement; we say okay, you have five people, one has left before we fill that position let’s make sure based off of the meals you’re serving, the number of meals you’re served that the rate I think it’s about 100 to one ratio matches what you’re feeding. And if you’ve got four people and you’re feeding 250 you’ve got more than enough on staff to serve. If you’ve got four and you’re feeding 600, okay, we’ll get you somebody and then we’ll work to get somebody else and so by doing that, that has also helped us minimize our expense which that’s one of our largest expenses payroll, it’s about 40%, which is also an industry standard. Same for food; food’s about 40%, which is also an industry standard as well. And we fall right in those lines. But for us, it did provide us an opportunity to kind of plan better, and slowly bring people on as we increase the number of students we’ve had, versus having 100 people and feeding four kids and going how on earth are we going to pay for it,” Reyes said.

He added that he wants to recognize his staff for their hard work and all the obstacles they’ve faced this year like wearing face masks and face shields, transporting meals and sticking to rules and regulations.

“I tip my hat to them, for sure. (It’s a) great team; resilient. It’s easy for me to be over here saying hey you guys do this, but they’re the ones out there.”