For The Madera Tribune
The Madera Unified School District Child Nutrition Department’s production line fills boxes of food for students.
Precision greases the wheels of productivity — 10,000 per week
When the trucks rolled out of the Pine Street headquarters of Madera Unified’s Child Nutrition Department on Tuesday, May 26, one of them had a special delivery. It carried the one millionth meal that the district has delivered to Madera’s students since schools were closed on March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the school board issued the closure order on that Friday, Brian Chiarito, MUSD Child Nutrition Director, and his staff had four days to convert their warehouse into a meals factory, complete with assembly lines, and to be prepared to deliver food to the district’s 18 elementary schools.
As Chiarito recalls it, everybody gave it everything they had on the Saturday, Sunday, Monday (a district day off), and Tuesday that followed the closure order, to develop a system in which they acquired the product, prepared the breakfasts and lunches and delivered them to the schools. On Wednesday, March 18, that system was in place and the trucks rolled.
According to Chiarito, the meals program quickly evolved from daily deliveries to once-a-week deliveries. This meant meals had to be prepared, refrigerated or frozen, and stored until it was time to put them on pallets and deliver them.
Child Nutrition now has a failsafe procedure that delivers 10,000 meals every week for Madera’s kids. Every Thursday the bulk shipments arrive. Truck after truck pulls up and unloads the ingredients for the meals. These include burritos, sandwiches, cereals, milk, juice, waffles, snacks, chicken nuggets, sausage and biscuits, graham honey bars, instant refried pinto beans, instant mashed potatoes, chocolate chip cookies, and much more.
The next day, Friday, is preparation day. The assembly belts are lined with more than 60 workers who prepare the food for packaging. Somehow, scores of items are separated into breakfasts and lunches and wind up at the end in individual boxes — one for each student. Each box contains breakfast and lunch for seven days — that’s 14 meals in each box.
Until two weeks ago, the district was providing meals for five days per week for each child. This was changed to follow USDA guidelines, which now allow for meals for every day of the week.
Once the meals have been prepared — 4000 on Friday — they are refrigerated or frozen and stored to await delivery on the following Tuesday. Meanwhile the crews go home for the weekend and prepare for Monday — the next preparation day. The assembly lines then spin into action again, and by the end of the day, 6,000 more meals have been prepared and boxed.
Tuesday is “payday” for the kids. That’s when they can pick up their meals for the next seven days. Each of the district’s 18 elementary schools is a distribution point for the meals. They can be picked up there between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
High school and middle school students get their meals at the elementary schools. They are free to pick up their meals at which ever school they want.
According to Chiarito, this has not caused a problem. The older students are generally consistent in their choice of elementary “meal schools.”
Wednesday is regrouping day, and the production begins all over again on Thursday.
The Child Nutrition Program is funded by the federal government and is administered by the USDA. It operates on a reimbursement basis. Child Nutrition orders the food and pays the bill. The USDA then reimburses the district for the meals it delivers. Child Nutrition has a “stand alone” budget; district dollars don’t pay for the meals program. At the same time, Chiarito reports to Deputy Superintendent Sandon Schwartz, but must also closely follow the rules set forth by the USDA.
Currently, Child Nutrition is operating under the “seamless summer food program,” which allows the students to eat their meals at home rather than in the school cafeteria.
Because it is a federal program, any child 18 years old or younger can be fed in Madera’s schools, whether they go to school here or not.
According to Chiarito, when Firebaugh USD had to close its schools and its meals program, many of its students came to Madera Unified for meals.
Madera’s Child Nutrition meals program is currently running like a well-oiled machine, but only time will tell how long that will be the case. The program will end on July 28. What form it takes after that depends on what the new school year looks like in terms of where the kids will be learning — at home or at school.
Whatever obtains, however, Chiarito says he and his department are ready to take on the challenge.