by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace
As a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Director of Child Nutrition for Lee County Schools, Valerie Weivoda knows the importance of ensuring children have food.
“They can’t learn if they’re not fed,” she said.
Though her job duties change practically every day — if equipment breaks down, she and her team must go into crisis mode to ensure food is still served — and she says “we do everything that you can and cannot imagine,” the main goal is always the same: feed the students.
“Our main goal is to feed every child in the district that needs a meal,” she said.
So when they learned students would not return from spring break in March of 2020, her team kicked it into turbo mode to make sure students’ needs were still met.
“It was very much a very quick hustle,” she said. “We just quickly had a meeting with all of our team and we got together, ‘Kids need to be fed, how can we make it happen?’ So we implemented a drive-though, grab-and-go station.”
The stations, which could be visited every Monday and Wednesday, were at six of the 11 schools in the district. Parents could grab a bag containing a free breakfast and lunch to last their children until the next pickup. It was free for every child in the car, so long as they were 18 or younger, and they didn’t have to be students in the Lee County School district. No questions asked. Between March 23 and June 30, with the help of staff and volunteers, they distributed over 135,000 meals.
Amidst a pandemic or not, one of Weivoda’s biggest concerns is to ensure her program is run like a business, because that’s exactly what it is.
“We very much operate like any other food service would,” Weivoda said. “We have to think about it all — everything that relates to financial budgeting and operational budgeting for the success of our program.”
From personnel training and management, to food and supply purchasing and budgeting, Weivoda is hands-on every step of the way. She also creates the menus, which she said is probably one of the more fun elements of her position. With multiple moving pieces, she must find a menu that: meets “federal meal pattern regulations,” doesn’t break the budget and, perhaps most importantly, serves students food they will want to eat.
This year, she wants to gravitate toward including more scratch cooking in the menus. She said it’s something the students enjoy, and it’s something the parents can feel good about.
“We want it to be nutritious,” she said. “We want to teach them good lessons about eating, and eating healthy in the cafeteria.”
For teaching those healthy eating habits, there are a few programs Weivoda has secured to make sure it happens. One of which is the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. This grant allows elementary schools to offer each student an extra serving of a fresh fruit or vegetable. With it, there will often be a discussion tacked on in the classroom.
“We may give the teacher information about the produce of the day, so they can talk to their students about it,” she said. “It could be something like an apple and how apples are grown and what nutrients they provide, and how you eat them and how they can be prepared.”
While Weivoda and her team are gearing up for what it will look like with extra precautions in place to return to school in the fall, she said students’ food security is important now more than ever.
“Even during planned closures, such as summer break, there are a lot of children that need our assistance that aren’t able to get it,” she said. “So being able to see children in school, doing whatever we can, especially during coronavirus, to continue to make sure that that happens, it’s so critical and important for our children.”