Meal Makers: Bemidji Area Schools serves more than 6,000 meals every school day
It’s 5:30 a.m. and five food service staff at Bemidji High School are already at work, preparing to serve an average of 1,540 meals on this day.
More than 550 of those are breakfast meals, a huge jump from what the district served a few years ago. Now that the high school serves what they call “second chance” breakfast, the numbers have jumped from less than 200 served to more than 600 -- and many days up to 800 breakfasts.
The 1,540 meals the high school serves per day is only a slice of what the district’s Food and Nutrition Service does. Bemidji Area Schools serves more than 6,000 nutritious meals per day at 10 different school locations.
Nine of the schools have full-service kitchens and the 10th is served through the high school’s kitchen. The district’s Food and Nutrition Service division has 43 employees.
It’s 7:50 a.m. and the rest of the high school food service staff has also been at work for more than an hour. Two of them will each take a cart throughout the high school at this time and students can grab food on their way to first period.
“We meet them where they’re at and it has increased participation,” said Tammie Colley, Food and Nutrition Service coordinator for Bemidji Area Schools, about bringing the carts to different locations in the schools.
Also at 7:50 a.m., four carts are also going out to offer breakfast at Bemidji Middle School and free breakfast is also being offered to students in kindergarten through fifth grade at all elementary schools in the district.
The carts will stay out for 20 to 30 minutes and at BHS, staff will gear up for the “second chance” breakfast, which happens between first and second period.
BHS started doing the later breakfast after participating in a breakfast study done by the University of Minnesota.
“There were eight schools across the state that participated in the study,” Colley said. “It followed students for several years, measuring them physically, demographically, academically and monitored the participation in breakfast.”
At that time, roughly 9:45 a.m., food service staff will bring seven carts to different locations for “second breakfast” throughout the high school.
Colley said Bemidji Area Schools received two $10,000 grants for breakfast expansion, which led to the district adding the carts. “They were in conjunction with Midwest Dairy to increase milk consumption for breakfast,” she added.
Only an hour later, at 10:45 a.m., the first lunch is served at Lincoln Elementary School, where 700 meals are served daily. About 250 breakfast meals are served and in six shifts, about 480 lunches are handed out to students.
The smallest school in the district, Solway Elementary School, serves just 187 meals per day while Paul Bunyan Elementary serves 368. At Paul Bunyan, breakfast is served in the classroom, instead of a traditional lunchroom setting.
With all those meals throughout the school year, Bemidji Area Schools also has an unpaid meal debt of over $29,000.
“We have the need to feed children but the ability for families to afford not just school meals, but sending food from home, nutritious meals, is decreasing,” Colley said. “They need support.”
Negative meal accounts can be the result of families accruing debt before they quality for free and reduced status, and simply because of the circumstances that led them to qualifying; some families just aren’t able to satisfy the debt, Colley said. There are also families who are just over the qualification mark, but they still struggle to provide or afford a school meal.
“An Angel Fund was developed,” Colley said. “It’s purely funded by donation. We’ve received donations form community organizations, district staff, alumni for schools.”
An Angel Fund 5K run is also planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, June 2, at Paul Bunyan Park. Registration cost is $30 for adults, $15 for K-12 students and free for children younger than 4. Same-day registration will increase to $35 for adults. Proceeds are used to pay down the unpaid meal debt.
“I would like it known that no students is ever denied a breakfast or lunch regardless of their status,” Colley added. “They get the same menu option we don’t substitute in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or whatever. They get the same thing served.”