Pandemic Efforts Lead to Summer Lunch Program at Raymond Central

Pandemic Efforts Lead to Summer Lunch Program at Raymond Central

By Tyler Dahlgren

At the end of each conversation Raymond Central superintendent Derrick Joel shared with his staff in the two weeks following his school district’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic lived an unwavering goal.

“We had to find out what was going to work to support all of our families and all of our students,” said Joel, in his fourth year at RC.

Through all of the collaboration in those first two weeks, through the academic review and the blinding haziness of uncertainty, Joel and Raymond Central moved forward with that prerogative as the bottom line.

“Our ultimate goal was to provide a high-quality remote learning instructional platform that allowed our students to continue to learn and grow in their RC journey,” Joel said. “I can’t praise our staff enough-teachers, custodians, cooks, paraeducators, administrators, board members-everybody, for coming together and putting students, as we always do, first.”

Navigating the pandemic’s adversity didn’t come with a playbook for school districts, so the administration team at Raymond Central set aside those first two weeks for review. There was no new learning, only plan-formulating, assessment and exploration.

“It was so fun and exciting to watch our teachers use electronic formats, creating videos for instruction and hosting Zoom meetings,” Joel said. “Not necessarily for learning, but so students could still see their teachers, friends and peers.”

On the back end of that work came a question. Kids were at home. Most families were home in quarantine, too. Many in the area were feeling the financial impact of business closures that happened, in many cases, without much warning.

“What could we do, as a school district, to still provide healthy meals for our students?”

Raymond Central didn’t hesitate in seeking an answer.

A C-1 district about 20 miles north of Lincoln, Raymond Central draws its students from several small communities. There are two elementary schools, one in Valparaiso and one in Ceresco, and the middle school/high school sits just off Agnew Road north of Raymond.

“Raymond Central is not as diverse as other districts, but we still have a diversity among our families and students,” explained Joel. “Only it comes in the form of social economic status.”

Like it is for districts across the state, there are families who rely on the school for support. Then a global pandemic hit and those schools were forced to shut their doors. In response, Raymond Central ramped up its backpack program and, on the wings of a pre-existing program called Carrying Shelves, rolled out its school lunch plans at the same time as the remote learning plan was introduced.

On paper, the district doesn’t quality for much aid, but to say that a large (and growing) number of students didn’t need aid at the time would be inaccurate. So Joel and his staff took a leap of faith not knowing where the funding for a lunch program was going to come from.

“We jumped in, we developed a plan, and we provided nutritious meals,” he said. “We partnered with NDE, and they have helped with that funding aspect, which was a sigh of relief. But we were going to find a way, regardless of how, to fund that program, whether it was more grant writing or a different avenue to supplement or offset that cost. It didn’t matter.”

From mid-March to May, the district provided, on average, 150 hot meals per day for students. In addition to pick-up sites, there were volunteer delivery drivers on-hand. It was an all-hands-on-deck operation, and it was successful. So much so that it led to another question.

“Why aren’t we providing meals for our families and our students during summers?”

Just like that, Joel and his team found themselves back at the drawing board.

Success, as the saying goes, breeds success.

Raymond Central sought feedback from its families, and when messages of appreciation came flooding back, the district saw no other option but to keep on keeping on. So they filed for and were granted a hardship waiver, showing signs of economic impact in the area. They were granted the right to serve meals through the Summer Lunch Program.

“It caught wind and fire,” said Joel. “Now, we’re serving 225 meals a day for an entire week. This is pretty incredible for us.”

The meals are nutritious, following USDA guidelines, and are assembled by food service coordinator Patty Hudson’s team and packaged on Monday mornings before being delivered to the pick-up sites. In all, the weekly process takes six to seven hours at a time, but the planning and collaboration carries on long past that.

“You truly do not know the caliber of collaboration and teamwork, and how much people care about our district and our kids, until you’re put in situations where you have to find what we call action solutions,” said Joel. “We have sat in meetings where barrier after barrier present themselves, and we’ve constantly brainstormed ways around those barriers. I’ve been amazed of what we’ve been able to do as a team.”

Raymond Central, Joel explained, is a unique district, spanning in all directions from the rural high school. Over the last three and a half months, the district, and the RC community, has grown tighter. Doing what’s best for kids, the great unifier.

“You go through a normal school year, and there are some tests and some tries, but it’s not until an event like this, with the magnitude of COVID-19, that all of that work comes together and you realize that we truly do whatever it takes to ensure the success and the health and safety of all of our students,” said Joel, who delivered meals during the first week of the Summer Lunch Program, which began June 15. “I appreciate NDE, too, for listening to our story and finding ways to help support us.”

After all, the numbers do tell a story.

Excitement is already building for the new school year, no matter how different it may look. Teachers can’t hardly wait to see students again, to settle into a semblance of normal at long last.

But these trying times won’t come and go without some good left behind.

This silver lining wasn’t plucked from the worn pages of a playbook, but willed to life by a school district stone-set in its commitment to serving both the students and the handful of charming small communities it binds.

“We have a whatever-it-takes mentality,” said Joel. “As long as we stay in communication with everybody that’s participating, then we’ll make it work.”

It’s Monday morning, now. The meals have been assembled and, as these words fill the screen, are making their way to the five pick-up sites spread across the Raymond Central school district in the hopes that a week’s worth of hot meals will make somebody’s job just a little easier, their day a little brighter.

“If something helps our students, we’ll always find a way.”