ST. JOSEPH — Demrhy Youngquist can usually be found handing out prepared meals in paper bags twice a week at St. Joseph High School.
As the food services director for St. Joseph Public Schools, Youngquist is tasked with ensuring the district’s students are fed a healthy breakfast and lunch.
The St. Joseph resident has had to get creative since schools were closed for the remainder of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, her time spent with the district – as well as another five years at the East Penn School District in Emmaus, Penn. – prepared her for sudden change.
Youngquist and her staff are serving three breakfast meals and three lunches twice a week – from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays – until the school year ends on June 4.
Led by Youngquist, they provide these free meals for any child under the age of 18. It doesn’t matter what their economic status is or what school district they are from.
Youngquist spoke with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Tony Wittkowski to discuss her job and the type of changes she’s had to make since the coronavirus altered how schools operate.
How did you end up in your current position with the district?
I moved back here in 2005 and the previous director was retiring, so I applied for the job.
What did you do before this?
I was in the restaurant industry. I was the restaurant manager at Schu’s Grill and Bar. I had moved away for a few years in Pennsylvania.
Tell me about your job and what you would do on a normal school day.
Every day we check in with the schools’ five kitchen managers that run the individual sites. I oversee them and make sure everything is running smoothly. It might include making sure orders are coming or helping serve or cook if they are short staffed. All the paperwork is more involved than people may know since we are a federally funded program. We have to make sure all the menus follow federal guidelines.
What kind of adjustments have you and your staff had to make because of COVID-19?
Well, we’re working on a skeleton crew at the moment.There’s about five people working. We wear masks when serving the food to the students or parents. We use a lot of our food that we had already. We had a lot of breakfast items and moved that to one central location. We prepare six meals a week per student.
What does your workload look like since the pandemic took over everyday life?
It’s actually increased even though we are not serving as many students as before. It’s new to us. We have streamlined it the past couple weeks. We’ve tried to be flexible in order to serve students. The paperwork is different because it’s a different program now. We had to take online classes to learn how it runs. It took a lot of work to get it started.
Is there anything you miss about school when it was in session?
I miss the students. It’s nice to see some of the students when they pull up in cars. I miss the interaction with the students.
Do you at least get to chat with parents or students when they pick up meals?
We do. We’re in the back of the high school just off of Lakeview (Avenue). They pull up. We ask how many students they need food for. But we do get to talk to the kids. A lot of them are excited to get some normalcy from school.
What are the biggest challenges you face with your job?
Right now it’s just been producing. It’s been different having to do this when you have a normal school day. The food is all bagged and it takes more time. Now it’s been better for four or five weeks since we have it more streamlined. In the beginning we didn’t know what to expect.
I’d like to end this interview on a high note. Do you have any tips for parents and guardians on when it comes to eating healthy during a pandemic?
In our lunch bags we have a couple snack-type items. We do provide a lot of fruits and vegetables in there. I know that’s not always easy to have around. We have portion sizes. We do a lot of apple slices and things that are quick.
They really seem to enjoy small healthy snacks like Halos (oranges). If you’re a parent and buy things that are easy to grab, maybe have them in a bowl on the counter as a reminder.
If anyone has questions about meal availability, families with students can email Youngquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.