Like so many, Stephanie Bruce '17 never imagined where she’d be this spring—in her case, on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response helping families feed their children.
“We distributed 132,000 meals yesterday,” says Bruce. “We didn’t realize how easy normal was until normal got turned upside down.”
A School of Business MBA graduate who still stays in touch with her professors and "great connections and great friends" from the University of Redlands, Bruce has served as the director of nutrition services for the Palm Springs Unified School District for seven years. Her department normally provides breakfast, lunch, and supper daily to students at 27 school sites, about 21,000 meals a day, when school is in session. For nearly two months now, she and her staff have literally transplanted their food services operation from the cafeteria to the curb at 12 locations to continue feeding the district’s students. While schools closed in mid-March to stem the spread of the virus, kids were still in need of nutritional support.
“Any of our students who are 18 and under may get a week’s worth of meals on Wednesdays,” says Bruce of the district’s food distribution program, which spans Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs, Thousand Palms, and a portion of Rancho Mirage. “We are going to continue to do this until the students go back to school.”
In the first week of the program, Bruce’s staff was distributing breakfast and lunch daily—which totaled 29,000 meals on the fifth day. They quickly realized it was safer and more efficient to distribute a week’s worth of food, 10 meals per student, on a single day. “We are now operating more like a food bank,” she says.
The program is similar to the district’s summer meal program, except now only adults may drive-up to the site for pick up, and there are strict protocols for handling (for example, one staff member may touch a car door or trunk lid while another sets the box in the car), as well as for social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and constant surface sanitizing and hand washing. “We work with food normally, so we always have strict sanitation policies,” says Bruce. “But we’re doing everything we can to protect the community and ourselves right now.”
Despite the region’s well-earned reputation as a resort destination, the district’s year-round population reflects below-average incomes, says Bruce: “About 90 percent of our student population qualifies for the free and reduced-fee meal program during the school year because this is a highly impoverished area in the first place.”
But now, with so many parents, many of whom work in the service and recreation industries, out of work, she says, “I’m serving about 130 percent of the meals I was serving when school was in session. Most other school districts are serving 30 percent.”
Bruce’s staff have received lots of thanks and congratulations for being among the front-line heroes making it possible for the rest of us to carry on. However, she’s hoping the appreciation will last beyond the current crisis for the nutrition staff, custodians, and bus drivers who make the program run smoothly.
“Nutrition departments in schools make it look easy, because no matter what happens, we still have to feed the kids on time.”
And, right now, her staff is doing what they’ve always done, but more so, and the district’s kids are eating nutritious meals despite these uncertain times. “People have got to eat,” says Bruce, who isn’t shy about saying how much she loves her job. “So, we show up, and we feed people.”