by Jennifer Yos
LANSING, Ill. (April 10, 2020) – Shortly after Governor JB Pritzker mandated school closures to begin no later than Monday, March 20, Superintendent Nathan Schilling of Lansing’s School District 158 received a phone call from Cameron Bolender, Vice President for Operations at A’viands—the school district’s new food service provider.
Bolender had an unprecedented request: Would District 158 consider temporarily sharing their new $1.6 million open kitchen located at Calvin Coolidge Elementary to facilitate the preparation of grab-and-go meals for hundreds of students and their families from seven outside school districts?
According to Bolender, the school districts in need—Glen Ellyn 41, Lyons 103, Birkwood 167, Calumet City 155, Wolcott 154, Posen-Robbins 143.5, and Summit 104—did not have the type of facilities needed to meet the demand for rapid preparation of fresh, cold temperature-controlled, individualized meals. Neither did they have the staffing necessary to produce the volume of food nor the distribution vehicles to deliver it where needed.
Dr. Schilling and Bolender quickly came to an agreement. Together they outlined a plan to ensure that that this support could be given without impact or disruption to the food service provided to the children and families of Lansing’s community. Over the course of two days—March 16 and 17—hundreds of grab-and-go meals were prepared and packaged in Coolidge’s state-of-the-art open kitchen and transported to the districts in need by A’viands.
“This prevented a break in food service for their families and was not an imposition to our own operations here in Lansing,” explains Dr. Schilling. “We did not use any of the food needed for Lansing’s children for this—A’viands brought this in separate…and [we] did not have to open or run the kitchen at unusual times to accommodate this. Everything was done concurrently with our own service.”
District 158 Board of Education approved the $1.6 million kitchen as a project addition to the original renovation and expansion of Coolidge Elementary. The new school building opened to students in August 2018, and the new kitchen opened in August 2019 with A’viands as their food service provider. According to Schilling, the goal of this initiative was to prepare and serve fresh food daily to students rather than the frozen meals previously offered.
Bolender expressed words of praise for School District 158 and the Township: “It was truly prescient planning on the part of the District and Township to invest in these facilities. When ground was broke at the Coolidge site, no one could have known what we are facing today with the coronavirus. It was the administration and school board’s commitment to pushing the district’s capabilities forward, readying it for the future, committed to continuous improvement, that made this possible. Not only for providing fresh meals, safely made and served to students enrolled in District 158, but for other districts in their time of need, too. …No exaggeration, humbling stuff.”
Dr. Schilling was happy for the District to be of service. “It was our privilege to have the opportunity to help [school districts] in need and ensure that children in Illinois continued to be fed when schools abruptly closed. We would certainly do so again for those in need.”
According to Bolender, as they progressed into the second week of school closure, the seven districts’ needs for daily meals stabilized to a new equilibrium, and A’viands was able to source the production and supply chain from their facility in Berkeley.