Carolyn Bogott: Weikum — What’s good for the kids

Published 6:13 pm Tuesday, April 6, 2021

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AAUW’s purpose in having these columns published is to honor women who contribute to the fabric of the community of Austin.  Mary Weikum, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Austin Public Schools, contributes to our community in a very concrete way by supervising the delivery of much needed nutrition for our most precious citizens, our school population. Mary said her decisions are made on the basis of what is good for kids. For example, a few years ago, it was decided that breakfast would be made available to all students on the premise that it was good for kids to start the day with a full stomach, even though it stretched the food service budget.

Mary Weikum

The budget is by far Mary’s biggest challenge. It includes not just the food, but labor costs and supplies. Supplies during COVID times have gone up substantially because of the need for single use items.

Government standards require that each meal include a protein, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable and milk. Working with the dietician, Mary’s staff must balance cost with what is popular with the students, not always an easy challenge. Now add that to the problem of serving lunches in bags, as they did during the time school was not in session.  The federal government supported the continuation of the lunch program when the school closed last March.  During the school closure, Austin Public School teamed with the Palmer Bus Company to take lunches to all of the school sites each school day, as many families in Austin depend on these school lunches for their children. Mary says her staff met the challenge with ideas and enthusiasm. They even worked out a way to include hot sandwiches on some days they were serving the bag lunches.  They also worked out a way to get the right amount of food to each site, complicated by the fact that reservations were not required. They loaded school vans with extra food that could go to a site that needed more or could pick up and relocate extra lunches from sites oversupplied.

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Now that school is back in session, lunches are served in bags three days a week. On just two days, hot lunches, like the favorite chicken nuggets with mashed potatoes and gravy, are served in Styrofoam, in an effort to limit non-recyclable materials. The idea of hot sandwiches in lunch bags has carried over from the previous experience.

Some other interesting facts about the food service program are that its annual budget is about $3.5 million.  Approximately half of our students qualify for free lunch, meaning for a family of four, the yearly income is  less than $48,000.  Some children, whose families do not quite qualify under the above standard, fall behind on their lunch payment.

For their benefit, Austin Schools has established The Lunch Tray Project which welcomes donations from the public to help those families.

Mary comes to her position well qualified, with education and experience in a variety of disciplines.  She is an Austin native, having graduated from AHS and Riverland (when it was Austin Community College.) She also took courses in education from Mankato State University, so she understands schools.  She learned how kitchens work and how to cook in quantity while she worked as a baker for HyVee.  (and she loves to cook!) Her first job with the Austin Schools was as Special Events Coordinator.

Mary tells her staff that they help to set the tone for their schools.  She is generous with her praise of how well they do their job, even in the midst of the challenges of getting food to children during the pandemic.

She is proud that her staff is just as child centered as she is, making lunch time a positive experience and developing warm relationships with students. Kudos to Mary and  all of her staff!