Laurie Milbrandt, Redwood Area School District food service director of Taher, Inc., got a call March 15 that she needed to attend a meeting the following morning. That call came as a result of a directive handed down by Gov. Tim Walz.

As part of the distance learning program being offered through the state’s public schools, districts were also being required to provide meals for students throughout the district.

In addition to Milbrandt, Rick Ellingworth, Redwood Area School District superintendent, the three school site principals and representatives from Thielen Bus Lines, Inc. were in attendance at the meeting with the intent to put together a plan to implement distribution of those meals.

Ellingworth admitted that at first he was not sure the process could be successfully accomplished.

“Thanks to our food service providers, six of our paraprofessionals and the bus drivers who work for Thielen Bus Lines, those concerns dissolved quickly,” Ellingworth added.

The meal distribution began March 30, with 11 stops established throughout the school district. At those locations a daily lunch as well as breakfast for the following day have been handed out for nearly five weeks.

Milbrandt indicated that currently there are more than 800 meals that are being provided every day.

The entire process has been very positive, said Ellingworth. 

Among those who are working on this project are 17 employees of Thielen Bus Lines, and, according to Joe Thielen, things have been going well for them, too.

According to Thielen, there are a lot of kids in the district who are relying on those meals from the school, adding they are glad to have the chance to help.

“We are contracted to do transportation for the school district, so even though we aren’t transporting pupils, this is a wonderful way for us to utilize our buses during this unprecedented time,” explained Thielen.

According to Milbrandt, the program started with the serving of sandwiches, but now four days of the week include take-and-heat food. (Directions are included, and the food inspector has been involved in the process.)

The staff in the kitchen start at 8:30 a.m. and work until 4:30 p.m. each day. There are seven regular staff and six paraprofessionals who are working, with two crews each under the direction of a certified food manager, Milbrandt explained.

In addition to delivering to 10 sites (the 11th is at Redwood Valley schools), Thielen is also sending out vans to do home deliveries as well as providing food to the school’s daycare program for essential workers.

Meals are not the only thing being delivered, as homework, supplies and other things students need are being dropped off by the bus drivers.

Yes, said Ellingworth, there have been some hiccups along the way, but as everyone involved has worked together things started coming together.

Ellingworth added it has been amazing to observe all of these people working together to make sure the students get meals on a daily basis. These workers – together with the Cardinal Kids Club daycare staff and the school age child care staff who provide daycare to children of essential workers in the area (about 50 kids every day) – are on the front lines of possible exposure to COVID-19 every day.

“To simply say our school board and school leadership is proud of how all of these people have stepped up, in such an unselfish way to work together on behalf of all of our kids and their families, is a gross understatement,” added Ellingworth. “The entire community is proud of the efforts of these providers, and it means the world to them they know they are appreciated.”

Thielen and Milbrandt added heartfelt appreciation to the staff for their efforts.

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- Photo courtesy of Jim Scoates