On the food front line: Mistelle Hannah’s work to feed hundreds during the pandemic

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  • Sarah Nowak, Sandy Homan, and Kim Bowler, employees at Northampton Public Schools food services, packs food for families at Northampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kim Bowler, an employee of Northampton Public Schools food services department, packs food for families at Northampton High School. STAFF PHOTO CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sarah Nowak, Kim Bowler and Sandy Homan, employees at Northampton Public Schools food services, packs food for families at Northampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sandy Homan and Kim Bowler, employees at Northampton Public Schools food services, pack many bags of food for families at Northampton High. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Schools Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah carries two gallons of milk for a family taking part in the Grab and Go meals distribution program at the high school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Schools Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah, left, and staffers Sarah Nowak, center background, and Sandy Homan operate the Grab and Go meals distribution program outside the high school on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Schools Food Services Director Mistelle Hannah chats with staffers during a lull in the distribution of Grab and Go meals outside the high school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Schools Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah, left, and staffers Sarah Nowak and Sandy Homan, right, take carts of Grab and Go meals out to the front circle at the high school for distribution to families with school age children on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Schools food service staffer Sandy Homan asks for the number of meals needed by a family arriving for the weekly Grab and Go meals distribution outside the high school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton Schools Food Service Director Mistelle Hannah chats with staffers during a lull in the distribution of Grab and Go meals outside the high school on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 1/29/2021 2:06:30 PM

Editor’s note: This ongoing column will highlight ways in which Grow Food Northampton seeks to address a variety of food issues in the region.

Mistelle Hannah, director of food services for the Northampton public schools, is a one-woman powerhouse of energy, efficiency and good cheer.

I first met her last summer as part of Grow Food Northampton’s Farm-to-School program, which — among other things — purchases organic produce from local farmers to include with the school lunches. The Community Food Distribution volunteers would be loading up cars in the parking lot of Jackson Street School, laboring under giant bags of corn or bushels of cucumbers, when Mistelle would sail in and cheerily roll the same giant bags into her van without breaking a sweat.

I suppose you don’t get through 10 months of a pandemic feeding hundreds of kids without a huge reserve of strength, both literal and metaphorical. Public school food service workers have been the invisible front-line workers in the whole coronavirus debacle, working largely without the recognition and support afforded to more obvious essential workers like doctors and nurses.

On a frigid day in January, Mistelle and I sat outside JFK Middle School at the icy picnic tables — she very thoughtfully brought towels for us to sit on — and she offered some thoughts on what it’s been like to transition from providing traditional school lunches to implementing a COVID-safe grab-and-go delivery system in a constantly changing environment.

“We closed on a Friday,” she said, of the shutdown last March, “and by Tuesday we were back to serving lunches. We had to. We couldn’t just let people not get their food. There are kids who receive nearly two-thirds of their nutrition through the school lunch program. We had four days to figure it out.”

She is justifiably proud of how flexible she and her staff — and public school food services across the nation — have been, thrown as they were into the midst of the shutdown without any training, supplies, or even enough people. From March to September, all meals were prepared by Mistelle and three or four other staff members. And over the past nine months, the NPS food service has provided 139,000 meals. (For comparison, over the last 12 months, Chipotle served 208,000 meals.)

How they do it

The pivot happened quickly in part because, back in 2019, Mistelle established the Summer Food Service program, a federal program that reimburses food service organizations that provide free, healthy meals for kids and teens in low-income areas when school is not in session.

Once the pandemic began, she was able to take advantage of the existing summer program infrastructure and its established sites to start feeding kids immediately, and in a way that was COVID-safe. While the numbers have fluctuated over the course of the shutdown, the NPS food service currently distributes seven days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches on Wednesdays at Hampshire Heights, Florence Heights, Meadowbrook, the Lumberyard and Northampton High to anyone under the age of 18.

That last bit — anyone under the age of 18 — is important, because there’s a general misconception that the current grab-and-go meals are only meant for low-income students, or only for Northampton public school students, when in fact, because of the way the meals are funded, the greater the number of participants, the more reimbursement money the program receives, which enables Mistelle to keep her staff of 28 paid. (She notes that during the pandemic, even the age stipulation has been waived, and adults too can get meals.)

If you have not been getting the free breakfasts and lunches, picking up these meals is a way to help your community. And the food, as Mistelle notes, is not the sad stereotypical school lunch we remember from earlier decades. Fresh, good-quality produce is always on the menu, and as often as possible, it’s from local farms.

In so many ways, food is as much about relationships as it is about physical nourishment, and the meal distributions have served as a connection point for the school community and beyond. Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, worried teachers showed up at the school bus site distributions to see their most vulnerable students and offer them some comfort and familiarity; the Community Food Distribution Project timed its food distributions to coincide with the school meal pickups; during the spring and summer, High Five Books showed up at every site to distribute free books to kids.

In Mistelle’s case, food is also about nurturing the relationship between the present and the future. As a registered dietician with a master’s in public health and 10 years of clinical nutrition background, Mistelle is passionate not just about day-to-day nutrition but about the long-term relationships the kids have with food over the course of their lives.

When I brought up Switch, the sparkling fruit juice that’s occasionally distributed along with the meals — it has kind of a cult following, at least among middle schoolers — she cringed and said something under her breath about Switch being her downfall. While Switch isn’t soda, it’s the precedent that gets her, not the product itself; it’s enough like soda that, by grabbing a Switch, kids are conditioned to think that once they go out in the world, grabbing a soda is a decent choice. (The baked chips also elicited a cringe.)

In an era when most people can barely imagine life more than a week ahead, I found it very touching that Mistelle was thinking of our kids’ well-being 10 or 15 years down the line. There’s a certain optimism in that, a kind of resilience that is heartening in the middle of this pandemic slog.

After we talked, we went inside for a brief tour. The JFK cafeteria, which like so many other places used to be crowded with noise and life, is now a silent storage and staging area for the assembly of hundreds of brown bag meals. In the kitchen, a couple of staff members, Brenda Coyle and Michelle Hadley, patiently measured oatmeal and broccoli into plastic bags while music from the radio echoed off the tile.

“They (the staff) really miss the kids,” Mistelle said quietly.

Who knows how long it will be before things open up and the cafeteria once again becomes the hub of middle school life? But until then, Mistelle, Brenda and Michelle and all the other food service workers will be there, sorting the vegetables, filling the bags — keeping the community together until we can be together again.

Meal distribution times set to change

Starting Feb. 3, the Northampton Public Schools meal distribution times will be changing as follows:

■At Hampshire Heights, Florence Heights, Meadowbrook, and Lumberyard: Wednesdays 12-1 p.m.

■At Northampton High School: Wednesdays 3:30-5:30 p.m.

For more information, recipes, and NPS food service events, check out the Northampton public schools online: @freshhampton on Instagram; Freshhampton on Facebook.

Francie Lin is the food access coordinator for Grow Food Northampton. She can be reached at francie@growfoodnorthampton.org.



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