Jacob Kleven found out this spring that making mashed potatoes for 500 kids is not easy with a mask on.

But Kleven, director of Taher Food Service, which handles the Stoughton Area School District’s meals program, also learned how to work with the district to adapt to the sudden schools shutdown in March and provide meals to students for the rest of the school year.

The program served more than 52,000 meals during that three-month period, with the help of nearly 100 district staff. The final meal bags of the spring were distributed June 10, with the program transitioning to the community-based Lunches for Vikings, which provides summer meals for area students.

The largely unexpected schools closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affected students not with their learning, but it also forced a major change in the food service’s operation.

Kleven said when the schools got the word to close their buildings to the public in mid-March, he and staff conducted a “rapid shutdown” of Stoughton High School, River Bluff Middle School and Fox Prairie and Kegonsa elementaries and consolidated operations at Sandhill Elementary, which has the most cooler/freezer space and large scale cooking equipment.

“We moved all refrigerated products (there) at the onset and continued pulling from the dry goods and freezers from the other schools during the shut down, with the help of SASD staff,” Kleven wrote the Hub in an email.

The kitchen staff was made up of two teams of six people each, with duties including cooking, preparing, wrapping and packaging.

“Lots and lots of packaging,” he said.

Beginning March 18, meals were distributed at four sites around Stoughton, but after a few weeks, realizing that wasn’t reaching enough students, they changed to a delivery model that started April 17.

“Within a week, we went from 100 to 500 kids a day,” Kleven said.

That’s where SASD transportation coordinator Karen Johnson and her crew came in, with staff adjusting on the fly to accommodate the large increase in meals.

“We started by packing meals in paper grocery bags, one bag per student, and that was a bit cumbersome,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “(Later), once the bins arrived, we packed 10 bags per bin, which simplified the loading and counting process. We switched from paper to plastic bags mid route due to an unplanned rain event, and plastic bags were the norm after that.”

Between early April and early June, 14 drivers supported 10 routes, with 29 runners taking the meals from the buses to the doorsteps.

The biggest challenge, Johnson said, was redrawing the routes every other day to accommodate new students, while balancing route distance, number of meals per route, delivery times, and communicating changes to the drivers and meal service in enough time.

“(Taher) was great to work with,” she said. “We accomplished a lot in a very short time.”

Of course, given the line of work, most everything was done behind the scenes. Though Kleven said it was nice to hear some stories coming back from the routes.

“I had a couple of the delivery helpers tell me it was wonderful to watch some of our kids waiting at their windows for the food to arrive and the smiles on their faces when it did,” he said. “We also received a couple thank you pictures from a family that received meals.

“That was really sweet and lifted us all.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.