School kitchen changes model for distance learning

Tucked away in the school cafeteria, staff works daily to ensure that all kids are being fed.

Tucked away in the school cafeteria, a team of dedicated staff works daily to ensure that all Orcas kids are being fed during a time of remote learning.

From last spring through June, the Orcas School District supplied daily breakfast and lunches to any child on the island, either at the campus or on a bus route. Now, parents can pick up a box filled with dry and perishable goods once a week. Currently, 120 people have signed up for the program.

“It’s huge for families. I’m met with families who have struggled, and it gave them something to look forward to,” said Food Services Director Madden Surbaugh. “The kids would be excited to meet the bus and get their lunch. And now with the boxes, it supplements meals for the whole week.”

After the emergency closure of schools in March due to COVID-19, the United States Department of Agriculture granted districts across the country a waiver allowing them to operate under the Summer Food Services Program guidelines. This permitted OISD to provide any child, 18 or under, free meals regardless of income or enrollment in Orcas Island School District. These meals were then reimbursed by the USDA. The waiver has been extended until Dec. 31, or until funds run out.

According to Surbaugh, when that extension expires, schools will be required to operate under the traditional National School Lunch Program guidelines, which means children must be registered in the district and fall under a free, reduced or paid status.

Families can sign up for the weekly meals (only one form per month is required) here: The meal boxes can be picked up at the school drop-off circle every Monday between 4:30-6 p.m. For more information, email or call 360-376-1552. No child will be denied a meal bag if they show up on Monday, even if not requested.

In addition to the meal pick-up service, Surbaugh and his cooking team — chefs Zach Holley and Bing Mowery — prepare hot and cold breakfasts and lunches for the elementary and middle school outdoor classes at Camp Orkila, Wednesday through Friday.

Students enjoy meals like pulled pork with coleslaw and potato salad with fruit and veggies. Each component of the meal is individually wrapped and packed into coolers. Each “pod” of kids also receives sanitizing products and bottled water. School kitchen staff comes in at 4 a.m. on those days to have the boxes ready by 8 am.

All of the food coming out of the kitchen and into the hands of students off-site must meet strict USDA guidelines.

“We are working within the confines of the USDA requirements because for huge school districts in inner cities these meals are sometimes the only food kids receive. Our expectations of quality of life are so different here,” Surbaugh explained. “It’s really tough because we can’t do the scratch food we want to be cooking. Now it has to be processed food. It’s better than no food but it’s not the healthiest. It’s a change.”

School kitchen changes model for distance learning