The Coast News Group
Oceanside Unified Transportation Department

Oceanside school district’s transportation staff help feed students

OCEANSIDE — The last 11 months have been full of “pivots” for Oceanside Unified School District’s Nutrition Services, according to Director Catherine Slomka.

Making sure tens of thousands of young scholars are fed throughout a pandemic and subsequent shutdown is no small feat, but with help from the district’s Transportation Department, Slomka and her team have found several creative ways to get those thousands of meals delivered right to the mouths of Oceanside students.

When the pandemic first began last March, Nutrition Services went from feeding students’ meals on campus to curbside, which is a service the department is still providing to this day. As the pandemic stretched on, however, Nutrition Services had to become more creative in how they increased the number of meals they were getting out to families.

“When virtual learning started, we saw a decline in participation,” Slomka said. “We realized we had to get more creative with how we made meals accessible.”

The curbside pickup was then extended from a few select locations to all school sites throughout the district.

By summertime, Nutrition Services began working with the Transportation Department on a new strategy for delivering meals. Using the Nutrition Services food truck as well as OUSD school buses, the team mapped out routes and began taking food closer to the homes of their students.

The buses bring food to all of the district’s 22 school sites, parks and other “bus stops” where families can pick up their meals every Tuesday and Thursday. Bus drivers are even delivering meals directly to the homes of 57 families.

The expansion of meal pickup and delivery services has significantly boosted Nutrition Services’ reach. Over the summer, Oceanside Unified staff served about 15,000 meals per day. Recently they surpassed their highest participation number to date: 38,000 meals served on Thursday, Jan. 28 alone.

By offering meal pickups at each campus, even the ones that are close to each other, Nutrition Services is giving students and families the opportunity to visit their own schools. This has boosted the number of meals they distribute as well.

Students and families also enjoy seeing those bright, yellow school buses after so much time without them.

“When scholars come and see the buses, it makes them happy,” said Karen Ballard-Sohayda, director of transportation. “They miss school and the camaraderie of teachers and friends, and they get to see them at these bus stops.”

Ballard-Sohayda said her team misses the students and enjoys seeing them as well.

“We miss our kids,” said bus driver Cindy Leftwick. “We wish we were driving them, but we aren’t right now so at least this is another way we can help the families.”

Leftwick, who has worked for the school district for more than 28 years, picks up bagged meals from North Terrace Elementary using a district van and takes them directly to the homes of families.

Bus drivers are doing more than just delivering meals, according to Ballard-Sohayda, who said her team is also getting down in the dirt quite literally by tending to the school district’s gardens.

The Transportation and Nutrition Services teams want to continue serving the families of Oceanside Unified, according to their directors. Working together throughout the pandemic has also brought staff closer.

“We are a unified school district,” Slomka said. “We want to embody that work by how we work together, and when we do look what we can accomplish — something we couldn’t have done if we had stayed in our own bubbles.”

Gold Star Foods, a food distributor to Oceanside Unified, recently gave Nutrition Services a Goldstar Award” for participating in their Farm to Families Program. The district took on a surplus of food boxes from the program and served 150,700 extra pounds of food in just one month.