Rotterdam

Mohonasen ‘lunch lady’ now keeps to-go lines moving

Kim Gagnon makes sure needy district students receive weekday breakfasts and lunches
Kim Gagnon at Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Kim Gagnon at Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam.

Categories: Schenectady County

Kim Gagnon never thought the words “brave” and “noble” would apply to jobs in the food service program at Mohonasen Central School District.

In this spring of the coronavirus pandemic, the adjectives are accurate.

“It’s quite amazing to be the lunch lady who is the hero,” said Gagnon, who supervises the Mohonasen lunch program. She and members of her staff are making sure needy district students receive weekday breakfasts and lunches. They’re wearing protective masks and latex gloves, packing food for kids who depend on the meals during the school year.

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Gagnon, a dietitian who lives in North Greenbush and has been Mohonasen lunch chief for the past 22 years, answered questions about her operation during an interview with The Daily Gazette.

Q: What have you and your program been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic precautions went into effect in the middle of March?

A: We have been providing breakfast and lunch every other day, and what we do is we’re giving two breakfasts and two lunches at every pickup. We’ve added a delivery program with it, so some of the people who live in the district are actually getting deliveries and some are picking up. We started out serving about 212 families. We’re up to averaging between 500 and 550. And because we’re doing double breakfasts and lunches, it’s coming out to about 2,400 meals, 2,200 meals every other day, which is pretty amazing.

We’re doing Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then the next week we’re doing Tuesday and Thursday, so we’re doing it every other day.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: Who are the meals for?

A: They’re for any student in the district under the age of 18, that includes preschoolers as well. We’re targeting, obviously, our needy families. However, anybody who comes can participate.

Q: What types of food are being packaged?

A: We are delivering curbside, so they pull up and we have boxes and bags of food. Some families are bringing in bags, we fill the bags and deliver them to the car so they never have to get out of the car. But we’re doing regular school stuff, chicken nuggets, pizza, nachos, some of the things that are the kids’ favorites during the school year. They’ve been pretty receptive. I guess the kids really look forward to it. Everybody gets fruit, juice, a couple different vegetables and then their entree and their milk. We’re serving the same that we would serve during the regular school week. We’re serving the five components that we would have to serve during a regular lunch.

Q: How tough has it been to do this, or is this something you and your staff would be doing anyway?

A: [It’s] very different. It’s taken us a while to get into a routine. Because it happened so quickly, there was really no time to plan.

Fortunately, my staff has been really great. We’ve kind of come up with ideas together. What we do is, the stuff that we’re serving, the entrees like the chicken nuggets are frozen — when they get to their homes they can heat them up and take it from there. It was challenging at first. The first distribution was definitely chaotic, but we’ve really gotten into a routine. Now it goes very smoothly and very quickly, the parents don’t have to wait long at all to pick up their meals. We’ve gotten very efficient, but it’s definitely different.

Q: How big is your staff?

A: Right now, I have three cooks who are working pretty much regular hours full time and then we rotate the distribution girls who are packing the meals. They’re doing maybe once a week. I have about 20 employees who are rotating, so they’re working like once a week each to distribute the meals.

Q: It must be a pretty long line of cars on distribution days.

A: It’s very steady, but we have three to four people who run the food to the cars. They’re picking up like four cars at a time, so it goes very, very quickly.

Q: Is there a problem with the food supply or is this something that’s been delivered anyway to Mohonasen, and you’re just doing what you normally would be doing?

A: No, the food supply for us has not been an issue. I have heard that some other facilities are having problems with getting milk deliveries, but we have not had an issue with supplies. We’ve been very lucky.

 

Q: Have there been any interactions with parents or students? What kind of feelings of appreciation have you been getting from them?

A: We get a lot of appreciation. We’ve had people deliver flowers to our staff, we’ve had people deliver cupcakes to our staff, we’ve had people send us emails, kids sending us cards and notes that they’ve written and colored, thanking us. So definitely they’re very appreciative. It definitely makes it worthwhile. We know we’re really providing a service people need and appreciate. It’s nice to know. One woman was saying, “We know this staff is risking the health of their families to help our families.”

Q: What is your day like now personally?

A: I go in at 6, especially on the distribution days. I am very hands-on, helping the staff prebag the baby carrots or celery sticks or whatever it is for that day. It’s time consuming to prep all of that. My staff starts coming for distribution days around 8:30. We load up all our meals for the families that are being delivered to (we’re up to about 30). The bus driver comes, picks up all the boxes of food and delivers them. Families start showing up around 9 o’clock in the morning. Distribution is pretty busy, so about 11:30, we finish up and start preparing for the next distribution. Usually, on distribution days, it’s a long day for me. I’m there until 4, 4:30, sometimes 5, just making sure we’re set for the next day. We’re still receiving deliveries, so on the days if my staff isn’t there, I need to be there to make sure the deliveries are being accepted and put away. It’s been very, very busy.

Q: Have you had any requests, cheeseburgers or anything like that?

A: Everybody’s been really great, everybody’s been so appreciative of the food we’re providing, so there have been no real requests. We’re trying to give the kids’ favorites, so they’re getting a little bit of school at home and it is really nice to hear the kids are actually excited about what they’re getting. I had one parent who told me their child would not eat baby carrots at home. She said, “Now that you’re sending baby carrots home, he’s eating them.” I thought that was funny.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: Do you worry that some of these students may not have food for the weekends?

A: We do have a backpack program for families who need additional support. We provide those backpacks and extra food … pasta, soup, cereal, peanut butter. We’ve gotten a ton of donations from the community and the City Mission in Schenectady, and the Boys & Girls Club in Schenectady are providing dinner for free for any student who wants to participate. For the backpack program, we’re getting a ton of donations. If they want to drop them off at the high school, we’ll take them and redistribute them to the family in need.

Q: The big question is, “When will things get back to normal?” Are you folks thinking you might be doing this in May, June, maybe even into July?

A: If that happens, we’re definitely prepared to go as long as it takes.

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