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Johnson City Schools food service supervisor sets out to feed all children

Brandon Paykamian • Apr 16, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Food Services Karen McGahey has worked to feed the city district’s students for nearly 40 years now, but this year has been like no other.  

The district recently began its modified meal distribution program after schools closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the program, McGahey and others have worked to provide thousands of meals for pickup at each school and at mobile sites throughout Johnson City.

McGahey recently spoke with the Press to talk about her job and the importance of keeping students fed throughout the year.

Aside from your routine work as supervisor, what’s your food service background?

“I’ve always been involved in our professional association, which is the School Nutrition Association. Through the years, they have identified the need for meals for all children. Not meals based on family income, but meals for all children, because we know that hungry children can not learn. I think it’s interesting that during this time, that’s been reinforced. Just like students need a way to get to school, books and a desk to sit in, they also need a meal to be safeguarded and ready to learn.

“Johnson City Schools is a member of a purchasing cooperative called NETCO, the Northeast Tennessee Cooperative. This is a group of 14 school districts in upper Northeast Tennessee that have come together to work to purchase food just to be proactive as to the best use of our food dollar and how we can work together getting pricing direct from the manufacturer to cut out some middle men. We look creatively at the purchasing process so we can be the best stewards we can of the money that’s been entrusted to us...”

How have closures affected operations?

“We normally have around 60 employees. We’re running with 40 employees right now. Everyone is really working long, hard hours, but with very much of a ‘can-do’ attitude. We serve lots of meals every day, but we’ve just had to retool the process to be able to pre-wrap everything, bag everything and get it on the buses to get to the students around town. Right now, we’re doing about two-thirds of what we normally do. Normally, we’ll do about 7,000 meals a day. Right now, we’re doing anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000, depending on the day.”

How have others stepped up to help you and your staff recently?

“We’ve had so much support from JC Transit (Director) Eldonna Janutolo and her drivers. They’ve provided eight buses for us, and we’re going to about 50 different stops throughout Johnson City. It’s been wonderful because the drivers know the children and where they live, and they’ve been great team members for us in distributing the meals.

“We’ve also had great support from the schools’ teachers and administration. At many of the locations where we’re handing out the meals at the schools, we have teachers and school staff coming every day helping distribute the meals, which allows us to spend more time with preparation and packaging.”

What are your overall goals as supervisor?

“We just want to feed children, and we want children to be ready to learn. We don’t want to have to worry about family income or other situations like that. My dream of dreams for this profession would be that (all) students come to school and get a breakfast and lunch, and it’s just part of the school day. I think that’d take the stigma away from eating, and we would be able to reach more children. We’d see more benefits with children being ready to learn. We’d see fewer hunger-related headaches and discipline problems because a student is hungry.”

What does it feel like to help feed the district’s children, and what’s morale been like lately?

“When I started nearly 40 years ago, we always knew we could be called upon for emergency feeding. We’ve always had a plan, but in the 40 years I’ve been here, we’ve never been called upon to do that. So this has been a challenge, and it has been an honor to be able to help our students.

“I think we’ve been the invisible essential service in the school system, and this need has moved us to the forefront of being an essential service. I think that’s energized our staff. Everyone from my staff to the bus drivers are concerned about reaching more children. I think it’s been a wonderful opportunity for our staff to show the importance of what we do and how much we care for the students we serve.”

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