Jeffrey Boyce

I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is February 1, 2022. I’m here in Mississippi today and I’m speaking with Donna Martin in Georgia. Welcome Donna, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

Donna Martin

You’re so welcome. Glad to be here.

Jeffrey Boyce

Well we’re here to discuss the challenges of Covid 19 so far in your programs. Can you began by giving your job title and brief description, and then you can start explaining how Covid has affected you.

Donna Martin

Certainly. Well I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist, which I’m proud to be a dietitian. I love that dietitians work in school nutrition.

I work in Burke County Public Schools. I’m the nutrition director. I’ve worked in school nutrition for over 30 years.

Jeffrey Boyce


Donna Martin

Yes. But Covid has been the biggest challenge I have ever had by far. I have never had a couple of years like we’ve had with Covid.

So I have five schools. We offer Breakfast, Lunch, After School Snack, Supper, Summer Feeding, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant. We offer every single program that USDA offers, because I have very food insecure children. We’re a large district, 826 miles of essentially nothing. We have five schools with 4,200 kids, so we’re a total food desert, total food insecurity. We’re 100% CEP, so all our kids eat at no cost.


Jeffrey Boyce

What part of the state are you in?

Donna Martin

We’re right near Augusta, Georgia, where that golf tournament is that everybody knows about. So we’re on the east part of the state, right on the South Carolina border.

We’re the largest landmass county in this state.

When Covid hit on March 17th we were ready. We kind of knew that it was coming. We were watching TV and we kind of knew things were going to start shutting down, so my staff got totally prepared, and when we shut down on one day our buses started rolling the very next day.

We have a huge Summer Feeding Program. We were the first school nutrition program ever to use buses to get food out to our families.

We started that program about 12 or 13 years ago, something like that, where we knew that our families needed the food and they did not have any transportation whatsoever.

So when we knew Covid was hitting and our schools were going to shut down, I called transportation and said, “The bus drivers are not going to be driving. I need them to start driving, because we are going to have to feed these kids.”

So our buses started rolling immediately on the 18th and we were sending out Breakfast and Lunch and Snacks to our families every single day Monday through Friday. So we were shut down from then all through the summer and to the fall and that program worked really, really well.

Our families got really used to knowing when the buses were coming. We have an amazing system on our buses, where they can log on to the bus route and they can follow the bus and they know exactly when it’s showing up to bring them their meals.


Jeffrey Boyce

That’s amazing.

Donna Martin

It was great. We use that same tracking system on our buses for the parents to know when the kids are coming home, or when the kids get to school. They can track the buses, so that system was already in place and then that way if the family missed the bus they could just catch up with it, or they didn’t have to come out so early or whatever.

That worked really great, but then when school started back, we had the hybrid, 50-50, so half of our kids were at home and half of our kids were in school.

Our kids were coming just two days a week. They’d come Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday and then we had Friday off. So what we did is when the kids came on Monday, we would send breakfast and lunch and snack come for Tuesday with them.

And then, when they came on Tuesday we’d send the next day home, so our lunchroom employees were making food for half the kids, hot meals, and bagging up for those half of the kids, to send home.

So our kids were getting two days of hot meals and two days of home cooked meals, but then we had half of our kids that were at home.

So, on Friday, we did box pickup. So we came up with the ingenious idea to do a week’s worth of food in a meal box, and this was the best thing we ever did Jeffrey.

So we did these meal boxes where we put like five pieces of pizza, a whole bunch of bananas, a whole thing of broccoli. We would do three potatoes in there, a whole head of Romaine lettuce.

And so we would send them the food and we would send them recipes with the food. So the families would get the head of broccoli and they could either steam it or we told them how to roast it or they could make broccoli salad out of it.

We would send home diced chicken and they would make chicken casserole. We would send them the noodles, the chicken, the cheese, and a recipe.

We would do chicken fajitas. We used our USDA Commodities, because we still had all these commodities, so we would do our chicken fajitas and we’d send them the recipe, and we sent them bell peppers, the red bell peppers and the green bell peppers and that counted for our red fruit, vegetable.

And we would send home beans that counted as our lentils, or refried beans or whatever, and we would send recipes.

Those weekly boxes became our way of feeding our families that never came to school. So half our kids were in school and half our kids were home, so we were doing about 1,500 of these virtual boxes a week.

We did those all year long. And our families loved them. We gave them a half a gallon of white milk and half a gallon of chocolate milk.

And what I would say in the lines on Friday, giving out the meal boxes, I’d asked them what they liked the most about the meal boxes, and the kids would tell me the healthy food.

They loved the fresh fruit and they loved the fresh vegetables, they loved learning how to cook. They liked the milk. We would do yogurt.

We would give them yogurt for lunch, so we’d give them bulk yogurt and we’d give them strawberries and blueberries and granola and tell them how to make parfaits for lunch, or we told them how to make smoothies, and we’d include these as recipes.

What I loved about the pandemic is there were some silver linings for sure. We had the opportunity to really teach our families what good nutrition we were feeding our kids every day in school, so we got to teach them how to eat asparagus, how to eat Brussels sprouts, how to eat sugar snap peas, we would send home kiwi, dragon fruit, blood oranges, any unusual fruit and vegetable you could think of we put in our boxes and sent home with information. So we’d send home whole cantaloupes, whole watermelons. Really we’d give them a box of food and one watermelon to go with it.

We’re teaching them how to cut the watermelons, how to cut the bell peppers. And our families do not know how to cook. They buy cut up fruit, because they did not know how to cut a pineapple. So we put a whole pineapple in the box and instruction sheets, color instruction sheets, how to cut a pineapple.

So as a dietitian I felt so good that we were giving these families fresh fruits and vegetables and we’re teaching them how to cook them. So the parents come back and say, “I never ate broccoli, but my kids love roasted broccoli. We love roasted cauliflower and we’ve learned to eat asparagus.”

So I felt like that was just really, really awesome. So that was a way to not only feed them in school and feed them at home, but also these weekly boxes were a way of feeding our families that they only had to come once a week to pick up the box, whereas a lot of school districts did daily meal pickup. We could not do that. We could barely feed the kids that were in school and send food home with them, so those weekly meal boxes were something we wound up doing the next summer. So last summer we sent home seven breakfasts and seven lunches in the meal boxes. We still did the half a gallon of white milk and half a gallon of chocolate milk.

And if the families wanted to get two jugs of white milk because they didn’t like chocolate we always gave them that flexibility to do that.

We felt there were a lot of positive silver linings, that we still had the opportunity to reach our families, but to teach them good nutrition and to teach them how to cook and expose them to all kinds of incredible foods that they had never, ever eaten.

We also sent home really interesting nutrition education in our meal boxes. So we would talk about how to wash your hands, we were talking about food safety, what to do with what we sent in the boxes, what had to be frozen, what had to be refrigerated, what could be set out on the counter.

Everybody was talking about with Covid that you needed to have more vitamin D and magnesium and zinc and all that stuff, so we sent them flyers about how do you get zinc out of your food, where do you find magnesium, where do you find calcium, how do you get vitamin D, so we were trying to teach them to get these things naturally, not to be doing a bunch of vitamin supplementation. So we sent them stuff about the new dietary guidelines. We sent stuff home about HACCP.

And I mean we just had more fun doing nutrition education and feeding these families healthy, so I think there were a lot of silver linings.

Another thing we learned is to really communicate with maintenance and transportation and our principals about what was going on, and communicating with our families.

We had a really good way of letting them know if we were shutting down, when the buses would be rolling, and how to get their meals.

And letting them know where to pick up. So if they needed to come in town and pick up meals what were our times, what school?

That kind of stuff. So we really felt like we did a lot. We got really close to the administrators. We made them understand why we needed to know if we were shutting down, how much advanced notice we needed to have, and why was it important that we were able to provide meals to the families, because we let them know that we’re like a restaurant, and if I don’t feed these kids I don’t get any financial remuneration.

So you know, for the schools to shut down it wasn’t a big deal. They were doing virtual learning and the teachers got paid no matter what. We didn’t get paid unless we fed the kids.

It was a really good educational experience to let them know why we needed to work together, why they needed to encourage the families to come pick up the meals, and I think the teachers felt really good, knowing that we were feeding their kids.

And when the buses went out the kids were so appreciative of having that link to the schools, because they were not leaving their house. But when the bus came by, that was the bus driver that was familiar, the aides on the buses, and that was that connection to the school system that was really helpful.

Jeffrey Boyce

Well, who determined who was coming to school and who was doing virtual learning?

Donna Martin

The parents decided that. So they decided whether or not they were going to send their kids to school.

So, about half opted to send them, coming every other day, and the other half opted to stay home, and so we had some families for the first year that never, ever came to the school.

We have a very low vaccination rate in our county, and so even when vaccinations came about we’ve still had a lot of families that didn’t get vaccinated. But that first year we offered everybody the option to stay home virtually.

This year we did not offer that option. You came to school, because we felt like our kids staying home, it was not as good as coming to school, so the only time we offered that virtual option was a couple of days that our buses, we don’t have enough bus drivers, we are short staffed all over the county.

So we had a couple days we had so many bus drivers with Covid, so many bus drivers that were FMLA, that we had to shut down for a couple of days.

So we were not able to do any food wise. It was very last minute that we had to shut down, but it was only for two days.

But I think it’s been really important. We’ve really developed a relationship, and it’s been interesting for them to understand what we do in school nutrition and they really value how important it is that these families get this food. And like I said, the teachers were very grateful, knowing that we were feeding their families all year long.

Jeffrey Boyce

Did you have any supply chain issues? How did you get your product?

Donna Martin

Yes. We’ve had lots of supply chain issues, so one thing we do here in Burke County, we’re very blessed, is we have at every single school two walk-in freezers. So they have a walk-in freezer inside and a walk-in freezer outside. So one of the things we do is we order all our food two weeks in advance, so we always have two weeks’ worth of food on hand. So when we’re ordering this week we’re ordering for literally two weeks out. So when the food comes in next week, if they short us something we already have an extra week’s worth of food.

So that has been a big blessing for us.

We’re having trouble getting things like bone-in chicken, so if we had bone-in chicken on the menu, and it didn’t come in, we would just take something out from that week, like chicken nuggets or something like that, and then we’d have an extra week for that bone-in chicken or something. We could order something else to replace it. But the school districts that are ordering for this next week, and the food doesn’t come, then they’re in bad shape.

Having that extra freezer has been a help. We also have a central warehouse, a central cooler and freezer, and we have been keeping in it food that if we shut down for a week, we can produce those weekly boxes.

I don’t know how much you know about school nutrition, but we keep pizza and corn dogs, and those are two items that you don’t have to have bread for, because pizza, the bread is there and with the corn dog the breading is there.

We do keep some hamburgers and BBQ, but if you try and do hamburgers and BBQ you have to have hamburger buns or hot dog buns or whatever, so we try to keep enough stuff in our central warehouse that if we shut down, we can send pizza and corn dogs home to our kids and not worry about having extra bread.

We keep some extra frozen vegetables in the warehouse that we can send home. We can always get produce. We have not had any trouble getting produce from our vendors and they are so in love with us because the entire time we never, ever shut down, we never, ever stopped buying from them, so they were so grateful that my produce guy says, “Donna, if you call me on a Saturday night I would drive to the produce market, Atlanta, and get you whatever you need.” So we keep enough stuff in our warehouse. We keep boxes. We had to come up with a special box to put this weekly stuff in. It’s like 13 by 9 inches by 12 inches.

So we keep a week’s worth of boxes in the warehouse, and then milk is the next question. So one of the things we did when ESSER funds came out, Covid funds came out, Cares Act funding, is we bought some refrigerated trucks with our Cares Act funding.

So I talked to the milk company, and I said, “If we shut down, can we get – “ because we need like 4000 half gallons of milk. That’s a lot of half gallons of milk. And he said, “Donna, I can get it made. I just can’t get it to you, so if you can come pick it up. If you can come pick it up at the plant, you can get the milk.” So with these refrigerated trucks, we have the capability of going and picking up the half gallons of milk if we shut down.

The supply chain issues we’ve had have certainly been paper products, and so what we did was we reached out to all the people that bid on us and did not get the bid, and said, “Do you have paper products?” and some of them said, “Yes.”

So we have bought extra paper products and are putting them in our warehouse so that, if one week we don’t get our weekly supplies, we have a backup.

I told the principals in a meeting that we were having these supply chain issues and my maintenance director said, “Well, I have some paper product people.” And he contacted them and it’s not people we deal with, but they got us paper products. I got us the five-ounce bowls that we were looking for, because they didn’t normally do school nutrition, but they had access to some of this stuff, so we were able to get it from them, so I think reaching out to other distributors can be helpful.

We also found out that there’s, as I talked about on the webinar, there’s so many different kinds of three-compartment containers. There’s small, medium, large. There’s black. There’s clear. We kind of said, “Look, we don’t care what, just get us something. We don’t care what the price is, just get us something.”

We’ve also gotten the principals to get some of the kids back into the lunch room to eat, so that we can use the flat trays that are easier to come by.

The kids struggle with them. They’re not ideal, but they’re better than not having anything.

You know, again, developing these relationships with the principals to say, “Look, we’re having trouble with supply chain issues.”

I go to Sam’s all the time. I go to Walmart. I contacted Walmart. We needed whole turkeys for Thanksgiving.

And I contacted them. They said, “How many do you need?” I said, “I need 60.” And they got them for me, so they were glad to do a bulk order.

So I went in my refrigerated truck and picked up the 60 turkeys and took them to the schools that we needed those whole turkeys to make gravy. We could get turkey breast and turkey roast, but not the whole turkeys, and they said, “We have to have gravy.”

We’ve had issues like sugar. One time we couldn’t get sugar, and so I went to Sam’s and bought 25-pound bags of sugar. That wasn’t any big deal.

So I to Sam’s a lot. I go to Walmart a lot, and there’s lots of Walmart’s in the area, so I just go from Walmart to Walmart to Walmart. We were having trouble getting yogurt and I just went to two or three Walmarts to get our bulk yogurt that we needed, and I got enough to make our smoothies, so I was able to get enough bulk yogurt.

We were having trouble getting teriyaki sauce.

We normally got it in half gallons, but we got smaller containers at all the different Walmarts. We had a bunch of different teriyaki sauce but we were able to do our Asian bowls.

We just run around and do what we have to do, but I think the main thing is having good relationships with your vendors.

We really kind of tell them, “Look, we don’t care what it costs and we don’t care what you have to substitute. If we want this kind of pizza and you don’t have it, send us whatever kind of pizza you have. You don’t have this sausage dog, send us a different sausage dog. We do not care. Just get us the product.

And they have been very understanding about that and we said, “Look, we know your prices are going up. Just send us the weekly food prices. We’re going to pay whatever you tell us to pay. We trust you.”

And we’re just grateful because vendors, Jeffrey, are dropping school nutrition programs like crazy.

Jeffrey Boyce


Donna Martin

Oh, US Foods dropped pretty much all the school nutrition programs. I used to have two grocery vendors. Now I have one. They’re dropping all over the country. There are big school districts all around the country that have been told, next year, they have zero food vendors, NADA, because we are the least profitable business that they have. They’re much more profitable to sell to grocery stores or restaurants or the hospitals. School nutrition programs, we have 50 million different kinds of nuggets and 50 million different kinds of pizza.

They just struggle with stocking all the crazy stuff that we have, and so they’ve just pretty much said, “You cost us too much money. You shut down. You don’t always buy the product, and we can’t keep up with this district wants this chicken nugget, and this district wants this chicken nugget and this district wants another chicken nuggets. If you all would all agree on the same chicken nuggets we might be willing to service you, but you won’t.

They have pretty much said, “Look, we don’t want to deal with you anymore.”

Jeffrey Boyce

Wow. Is there anything that you tried that you found just did not work? It sounds like you have been quite industrious.

Donna Martin

We have been industrious. I have amazing staff. I’ll just tell you that. I have amazing staff. We did not like the daily meal pickup. That’s when we had to go to the weekly meal pickup. The daily meal pickup just did not work.

Now we’re pretty successful. We’ve gotten really good about when our weekly pickups, we’d give rosters with their kids’ names on them, so we didn’t have to look it up.

They’d come through and they’d be picking up for several kids, and we’d be searching our list.

We finally gave them an eight by 10 card with all the kids’ names on it, so they would just hold up the card, and that was very efficient.

That worked really well. The other thing is we use high school students. We are famous for the high school students that we employ to help us on Fridays, when we were doing those meal boxes.

We would hire high school students to help us put those meal boxes together and help distribute them, because that milk is so heavy. To get a cooler of those half gallons of milk was really heavy, so hiring high school students really helped.

I hate to say it, but there really wasn’t anything that we tried that didn’t work. We really kind of thought things through.

Jeffrey Boyce

It sounds like you were well prepared.

Donna Martin

I’ll tell you the one thing that didn’t work. On Fridays when we first started, the meal boxes we were delivering on the buses on Fridays, that did not work. The families were not home.

The kids wouldn’t come to the door. That did not work, and that’s when we finally said, “You have to come pick up the meal boxes.” So during the year that did not work to try and deliver, because we couldn’t just leave the food on their doorstep, because it was frozen and perishable. There had to be somebody there to pick it up, so that did not work, the Friday deliveries.

But during summer feeding when the buses were out and they knew they were coming and tracking that that did work. But Friday during the school year did not work.

Jeffrey Boyce

You said you had to create special meal boxes. How did you manage that?

Donna Martin

We decided we’re going to do this weekly food delivery or pickup box. We got all the food together and we said ‘how big did the box need to be to put all this food in?’ and then we contacted our paper supplier and said, “Look. This is kind of what we need. What size box can you get for us?” And that’s when he told us the 13 by 9 or whatever box would work. And so he special ordered those boxes for us, and he would do a run of like 12,000 boxes and we would order 12,000 boxes at a time.

We stayed in real close contact with them. So I laughed that my husband thought I had a boyfriend with the milk guy, because I was calling him every day trying to tell him how much milk we needed. And so Dave and I were like best friends. Every single day we would talk about how much milk we needed, and working on our milk order, and I talked to the paper guys, you know, how many boxes do you need this week, and so it was constant communication.

Jeffrey Boyce

Has losing that vendor you talked about affected your meal planning or the quality or variety of your product?

Donna Martin

What it has affected is the fact that when we had both vendors, if one couldn’t deliver, or they were out of something, we could call the other one. And so that has definitely created issues.

Only having one vendor also creates a lack of competition, and they only could deliver on certain days, and if they miss a delivery you don’t get it until the next week. So it creates problems.

Jeffrey Boyce

You mentioned the organizations like your vendors that are paid. Have there been any organizations within the community that you were able to partner with to help you meet your mission?

Donna Martin

So we have a big Farm to School Program. Now our farmers were not selling to a lot of restaurants and stuff, so they would have extra product, and they would call me and say, “Donna, could you use pears? Could you use this? Could you use that?” And I would always say, “Yes.”

I said, “Great. We’ll put them in our food boxes.” So we work with our farmers and they were able to supply a lot of product to us and ensure that we had fresh, local food, so our farmers have been huge.

We also got some grants, so we got some coolers and stuff like that. So we’ve got some grants from No Kid Hungry and grants from GENYOUth and some grants from the Dairy Council. That was really helpful to give us some extra money for coolers for our milk and stuff like that.

Jeffrey Boyce

Do you anticipate these partnerships continuing once we hopefully emerge from the pandemic?

Donna Martin

Well, we definitely have our farmers, and I think our partnerships have strengthened with them, because we’ve been partners for them.

I do work with No Kid Hungry a lot and with the Dairy Council. Yes, I do think that the partners will continue.

Jeffrey Boyce

Well, it sounds like there’s been a lot more positive than negative in your outcomes. Would you say that’s true?

Donna Martin

Our parents have been so appreciative of the food. And our produce vendors and melon vendor and all of our vendors that we worked with throughout the pandemic that kept them going, really appreciated what we’ve been able to do. And the school board has appreciated what we’ve done.

And I think a silver lining has been we have increased our capability for the summer, because our families love our boxes so much. We did well financially too, versus the other districts that didn’t have such a robust program where our families really wanted to come get our boxes.

A lot of school districts struggled financially; we did not. We actually made money.

And then with the Cares Act funding, we were able to get an extra walk-in freezer, and a forklift for our warehouse, and our refrigerated trucks, so we did, really, really well.

Jeffrey Boyce

Anything else you’d like to share with me today?

Donna Martin

One of the things that I think came out of the pandemic is breakfast. We’ve always had Breakfast in the Classroom and Grab and Go Breakfast, but a lot of school districts always wanted that program and were never able to get it. The pandemic got a lot of Breakfast in the Classroom started. I think it’s really, really been a good thing.

I think the waivers have been great. We’re just hoping they continue.

Jeffrey Boyce

Thanks for taking the time to share with me today.

Donna Martin

I hope it was helpful.