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MDUSD earns "Pivotal Practices" award for Food & Nutrition Services during the pandemic
Posted 6/7/22

The Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD) was one of 121 California school districts to earn a "Pivotal Practices Award" that celebrates schools and districts that implemented "an innovative practice during the 2020–21 school year, when California required schools to offer distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic."


Below is a description of the innovative services implemented in MDUSD, based on the award application submitted to the California Department of Education.


When the pandemic closed schools beginning in March 2020, the district's Food & Nutrition Services Department designed and implemented a Curbside Food Distribution Program at 14 school sites located in five cities within the district communities serving 80,000 meals per week. Three pivotal practices emerged from the pandemic program: a Curbside Food Distribution Program, Bus Delivery Food Distribution Program, and Scratch Cooked Meals.

The Department implemented the Curbside Food Distribution Program in 72 hours. Area Supervisors and the Director of Food & Nutrition Services monitored the field of 14 Curbside Food
Distribution Centers on a daily basis. The Curbside Distribution system model became the most effective way to distribute classroom materials to students as well. When families would visit Curbside Food Distribution Centers, they also could pick up educational materials. School garden projects, science materials,  multilingual literacy activities, and other student supplies were distributed for continued instructional success during virtual learning, with the Department staff proud to take on a more
prominent role in ‘continuing the learning.’

The Department kept families and students engaged through the quality of food provided and special menu theme days. For example, the department set up a BBQ at a Curbside Food Distribution Center that had students and families pick up a BBQ meal and, in most cases, a USDA Produce Box as part of a USDA Grant that helped many families during the pandemic. This motivated many families and students to stay connected to their school because of the meals they received, and we learned that everyone loves the smell and ambiance of a great BBQ meal.


Although virtual learning was occurring, our students reported feeling emotionally connected to their schools. The love and ‘air hugs’ from Department staff when students and families walked or drove over to pick up meals was heartwarming.

From March 2020 thru June 2021, the Department collaborated with many community organizations, distributing donated food and USDA Grant Food programs to many families who were in need of
food during the pandemic, but particularly during the “shelter at home” period. The department distributed over 1,000,000 pounds of food in all five cities within district communities. Fresh
produce, organic beef, dairy, and many other commodities were delivered weekly.

In Fall 2020, the Department realized many families did not have the ability to leave their homes to pick up meals at Curbside Food Distribution Centers. The Food & Nutrition Services Department partnered with the MDUSD Transportation Department to implement a Bus Delivery Food Distribution Program that relied on district buses as delivery vehicles. Many joked that it felt like an MDUSD version of Instacart. The Transportation Department supported 18 routes throughout our district’s 150 square mile radius, with new bus stops identified and established according to a set route timeline based on family input. Thus, families could pick up meals right outside their homes, creating food access
locations for families that were having a difficult time picking up meals. This resulted in a new Food Distribution system that served 10,000 more meals per week.


Due to the successful distribution during the pandemic, MDUSD invested in a new fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks to continue more effective methods of distributing food to sites, neighborhoods when necessary, and the community in the event of future emergencies. These pandemic-related responses became best practices, an upside of an otherwise challenging pandemic. The opportunities were created for the Department to develop and implement an inter-district distribution program that currently supports 47 school sites.


This distribution model was further successful with the collaboration of the Contra Costa County Bus Connection that picked up meals at two school sites in the Bay Point area of the county. The County Connection Bus system delivered meals directly to 100 student/family homes that were having a difficult time with transportation to access meals.


Finally, during the pandemic-related closures, the Department produced 85% of the meals, made from scratch, in the district Central Kitchen and high school kitchens. Each kitchen was responsible for hand rolled burritos (including vegetarian to meet students' cultural needs) to a variety of homemade pizzas, including the Sicilian Scratch Pizza in the photo below. The success of the scratch cooking model continues to remain in place and on district menus because food was of higher quality and more cost effective. This specific pivotal practice is still used in MDUSD with the many scratch cooking menu entrees designed and perfected during the pandemic. This enabled the Department warehouse attendant drivers to gain experience using the new delivery trucks that have helped the program to be more efficient, more cost effective, and provide a higher quality of service to school sites. 

The Department learned from the pandemic and these new pivotal practices that the ability to scratch cook meals at multiple sites was more than possible moving forward, as were new ways to distribute meals. The Central Kitchen became the hub of the district for food distribution and a major food production kitchen, and the ability to distribute food through a New Inter-District Distribution system meets more needs than ever before. These pivotal practice helped develop new systems and processes that are still being used today in the Food & Nutrition Services program, allowing us to become more efficient and streamlined in our operations. 


The inter-distribution system continues, scratch made entrees continue to wow our students, and a newly completed centralized warehouse supports operations at over 47 school sites. The three pivotal practices put in place by the Department instilled confidence in the Food & Nutrition Services staff that it really could overcome any challenge; the learnings from the pandemic have allowed the teams to do more than just think outside the box: they threw away the box! Food production, distribution, community partnerships, distribution of food at a very high volume in a drive-through setting, and the Department becoming the epicenter for food for those families in need are all pivotal, game-changing outcomes of the pandemic. Students and families could count on support from their schools in their area. 


The Mt. Diablo Unified School District, led by the Food & Nutrition Department, became the core of services for so many in our community and provided immeasurable support for tens of thousands of families in need during the pandemic. 


Mt. Diablo Unified Food & Nutrition

Bel Air Elementary School - Curbside BBQ during the Pandemic (February 2021)