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Huband Park Elementary’s Salad Bar: Safely Adapting to COVID-19

School food programs everywhere have had to adapt to COVID-19 over the past year, and this of course includes our Salad Bar Grantees. 
A good looking salad for this grade one youngster!

The following case study shares the story of Huband Park Elementary School in Courtenay, British Columbia, who have been able to pivot to the new reality with great success. This shift has been possible thanks to the dedication and hard work of lead volunteers Barb Mindell and Karen Stevenson, as well as integral support from the Comox Valley Farm to School Learning Circle facilitator, Jenn Meilleur, and participants that include school administrators and additional parent volunteers.

Huband Park has about 375 students from Kindergarten to Grade 7. Located in a rural area, a number of families who are connected to the school own or work on farms and this was a driving force behind their initial salad bar project that began in 2012. Huband Park Elementary received their first Farm to Cafeteria Canada grant in 2016 to help grow their farm to school program.

How has Huband Park made it work during COVID?

When schools began reopening in 2020, the team at Huband Park knew they needed to figure out how to continue their salad bar. Fortunately, from the start, the Comox Valley School District acknowledged the importance of school food programs, and made a commitment to continue offering as many as possible. Gracie MacDonald, the school’s Principalwho also plays a vital role in the programsays their school community understands the significance of school food programs for students’ physical and mental health.

In the summer of 2020, a virtual working group was organized by Jenn Meilleur as part of the farm to school Learning Circle that has been operating in the Comox Valley since the fall of 2019. Closely working alongside Jenn to help to convene the community and tackle school food service logistics was community partner and Learning Circle advisory member Maurita Prato of LUSH Valley Food Action Society. This working group culminated in September 2020 as a “Salad Bar Re-Start Plan” meeting that saw administrators, school trustees, public health, and school district staff, including the Director of Health & Safety, eager to come together to figure out how they could safely re-launch the salad bar. The school nurse also offered guidelines.

Karen, Barb and Gracie then drafted COVID safety protocols to present back to the school district (see the details below), who approved the protocols in consultation with the Public Health Unit and gave permission for the salad bar to operate. This open communication and commitment to school food from all parties involved was crucial, and helped everyone feel comfortable moving forward.

Pre-COVID, Huband Park was serving on average 200-240 students weekly from three salad bar units in the hallway outside their kitchen. The program would run with four parent volunteers and 13-15 student volunteers. Grade 7 students, who were excused from class by teachers on a rotating basis, would help prep the food, hand out plates, and help serve from the bar.

Volunteers prepping the food

Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the salad bar is run with only adult volunteers, but they are still able to serve about 180-210 students who are spread out in cohorts using a multipurpose room. Knowing that they would need plenty of extra hands without the student volunteers, the salad bar team turned to parents through social media, contact lists, and messages in the principal’s weekly emails.

The food for Huband Park’s salad bar is sourced from both local farmers as well as nearby grocery stores, with an aim to source locally and serve seasonal food as much as possible.

Kimberley Toonders, a Public Health Dietitian with the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA), says that the Huband Park program has been a great leader in showing that healthy food can continue to be served safely during the pandemic, adding:  

“School food programs have always been an important source of healthy food for children, and the pandemic has highlighted the ways that schools can adapt to provide structure and security to students during uncertain times.  Students who are well fed are better learners, and salad bar programs are key ways to offer children a variety of healthy foods as well as support local food systems. The pandemic has resulted in increased mental health challenges in schools, and ensuring students are well fed is one important way to mitigate these challenges.”

Charlene MacKinnon, VIHA Senior Environmental Health Officer, was part of the school’s virtual meeting in September. “From an Environmental Health perspective,” Charlene shares, “currently there is no evidence that food or its packaging can be associated with the transmission of COVID-19. Therefore, it is important to understand that there are safe ways to feed children wholesome and nutritious food in school during the COVID-19 pandemic. By incorporating regular food safety practices with the schools’ COVID safety protocols, food programs such as salad bar programs can be run safely.”


So Huband Park re-launched the salad bar in early November 2020 with some key changes:

  • Only having adult volunteers deliver the salad bar (food-related volunteers are currently the only volunteers/parents allowed in the school, so volunteering with the salad bar was a draw for some parents!)
  • Altered serving times, with students separated into cohorts
  • Using a multipurpose room (a previously used classroom) where physical distancing is achieved, while limiting kitchen staff to four individuals at a time (the room was measured to make sure that volunteers could appropriately distance themselves)
  • Having plates gathered from classes after use instead of at the kitchen
  • And other common safety COVID protocols like mask wearing (in fact, the mandatory use of masks around the exciting salad bar actually helped encourage mask wearing throughout the school!)
See Huband Park’s full COVID-19 Safety Protocols below. These have been shared with school staff as well as families:

Huband Park Covid-19 Safety Plan Salad Bar

Our salad bar runs every Tuesday except after a long weekend. The volunteers are all parents. In the past, we have included student volunteers to learn to help prep in the kitchen and serve food. We may choose to invite older students to help in the future once our safety measures are in place. But from here on in, “volunteers” will refer to the parent volunteers. All volunteers will be briefed on safety measures from the point of entering the school to meal preparation, serving and clean up. We typically serve up to half of the school in the past but the numbers range from week to week.

The following is an outline of our procedures to limit the transmission of COVID-19 while serving a healthy salad bar lunch program to our staff and students.

FOOD SAFE:

  • At least one volunteer with a current food safe certificate will be present during the preparation, serving and clean up of salad bar. Huband is committed to providing a food safe environment in our certified kitchen while maintaining COVID-19 safety measures and protocols.

GROCERIES:

  • A volunteer will shop the day prior to our salad bar day, using the safety protocols mandated by the stores.
  • Where and when possible, we procure local produce, baking and meats in order to offer support to our community farms and businesses as well as to offer the freshest possible foods for the students.
  • On the same day, that volunteer will be approved to enter the school to drop off the groceries into the fridge and designated areas in the kitchen.

PREPARATION:

  • The kitchen will be disinfected as soon as the first volunteer enters the room.
  • We will need four volunteers minimum and we will all arrive in a staggered manner, the earliest being 8 am. In addition to wearing a mask and regular hand washing during prep, the volunteers will be able to distance at least a metre within the kitchen most of the time.
  • Signs will be posted in the kitchen to remind volunteers to wear a mask, wash hands regularly, adhere to proper respiratory etiquette and to keep physical distance as much as possible.
Three of our servers on one of the bars serving a grade one class. Each volunteer has her own section in the bar and set of utensils.

SERVING:

  • Volunteers will be serving food, buffet style, directly to the staff and students at all times.
  • Signs will be posted to remind students about hand hygiene, not touching their face, and proper respiratory etiquette.
  • Before entering the serving area, the students will sanitize their hands. The students will enter through one door and leave from another in order to maintain a unidirectional flow.
  • Students will arrive to be served with their teacher and their cohort teachers.
  • All servers will be wearing masks.
  • We will be using re-usable plates and utensils as we are also committed to reducing waste, as well as providing education to our children about reducing our carbon footprint.
  • Staff and students will take their salad back to their classrooms where they will eat as usual during lunchtime.
  • If a child would like to take home their uneaten food, we will provide them with a clean disposable container to take home.

CLEAN UP

  • A bin will be provided to each classroom for staff and students to deposit their dirty plates and forks. Once the plates and utensils are collected in the bins, a volunteer will bring the bins to the kitchen.
  • Parent volunteers will follow food safe guidelines to wash, sanitize and put away all clean plates and containers.
  • Volunteers will also sanitize all tables used, food bars and bins before putting them away.

Q&A

Gain more insight from Karen Stevenson (KS) in our Q&A below:

Can you tell us a bit more about your and Barb’s roles?

KS: I am the volunteer coordinator, Parent Advisory Council (PAC) Exec salad bar representative, Huband staff liaison, media advertiser and I manage the kitchen on Tuesdays. Barb Mindell produces our menus and grocery lists, coordinates our grocery shoppers (there are four who alternate), and is a key participant in the kitchen each week. Barb is also one of our servers. 

We have fifteen parent volunteers who rotate, coming in for a prep shift or serving shift each Tuesday. Each Tuesday we currently have Barb, myself and one prep volunteer in the mornings and four serving volunteers who arrive to serve and clean up. Barb and the other prep volunteer serve with the four who arrive (I remain in the kitchen during serving to refill product and start dishwashing as the plates come in), then we all eat lunch together. Barb, the other prep volunteer and I leave and the four remaining finish dishes and cleanup.

In terms of timing, I start at 7:45 a.m. and stay until 1:15 p.m. Barb is there from 8:30 a.m. – 1:15 p.m., as is the third prep volunteer. The servers arrive at 11:45 a.m. and leave around 2 p.m. when cleanup is complete. Grocery shopping takes between 1-2 hours on Monday. 

Barb and I both spend another 1-2 hours a week prepping, communicating at home, and recording things like number of plates served, theme rotations, recipes, and volume of food served vs. eaten, so we can adjust accordingly if needed.

What successes have you seen throughout the year, and what do you attribute to these successes?

KS: We have been very successful in serving our salad bar. Despite changes, which we were willing to overcome, we continue to serve nearly as many plates as in the past. 

It does take us longer and requires more parent volunteers than past years. I can only attribute our success to the perseverance and passion of our school district, Huband Administration, staff and families, and our beloved volunteers who make it all happen each week.

When we first aimed to get started again this fall, the admin made the magic happen and then opened the doors for us. I can’t stress enough the requirement of the school’s admin to be on board here. The principal Gracie did all the leg work for us to start up because she wanted it to happen. She is passionate about feeding students and she gives up her own time to provide breakfast every day at school as well.

What is your financial model?

KS: With an average of 200 plates per week, we charge $3 for pre-orders and $5 for drop-ins on Tuesdays. Most salad bars cost us less than $2 a plate to produce, but it fluctuates depending upon theme and time of year.

As an example, our salad bar revenue for November-December 2020 was $3213.00, with $1833.77 in expenses, equalling a $1379.23 profit. That’s an average profit per week of $229.87. Our total profit for all of 2020 was $4917.84, from only 18 days due to COVID.

Previously, all income from parent volunteer-run programs was put directly into our general PAC account. It was then used for allocated teacher discretionary funds, electronics and upgrades within the school, field trips, busing, playground equipment, etc. Since 2019, we have separated our salad bar funds into a separate account and they are destined to be used for food literacy programs within the school, sadly none of which have been running since the start of COVID.

What have been the biggest challenges in adapting to COVID? How have you dealt with these challenges?

KS: Our largest challenge I believe has been the change in Huband’s time schedule due to the requirement of COVID cohorts. 

Students are now broken into two groups and each group has their own separate lunch hour. In earlier years we could serve 220 salads in 30 minutes and we are now serving 200 salads in 75 minutes. In years past, we ran three salad bar units. We are now able to run two salad bar units (we were only able to run one until recently when I was able to find more volunteers to serve from the second bar). 

We required patience and more adult volunteers who were willing to stay for a longer period throughout the day. 

What are your biggest takeaways from the last year?

KS: Honestly, my biggest take-away is how much our school LOVES our salad bar. They were so willing to be flexible to our changes and challenges. Our greatest salvation has been willing administrators and volunteers. With lots of hands available we have been able to get the job done regardless of time requirements.

Will you bring any of these adaptations into the salad bar program after COVID?

KS: We had a very fluid system pre-COVID. However, thankfully we had access to our multipurpose room this year (it has been a classroom in years past) for serving, and I could see continuing this in the future. We used to serve in the hallway and it was a traffic jam of epic proportions.

Why are farm to school programs so important?

KS: Farm to school programs like our salad bar are Win/Win programs. We get the highest quality food into kiddos’ bellies, we earn a substantial income for school use and we are able to educate families on the importance of healthy food production, procurement, eating well and supporting your school community! Traditionally, we educated families through class teaching. While that is no longer happening, we are still able to offer some education through online posts, emails and signage at school.

To learn more about farm to school at Huband Park, and other schools in the Comox Valley, check out our resource, Growing a Movement: Farm to School in the Comox Valley

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