In this time of COVID protocols and a tight labor market, everyone is having to get creative with staffing, but we have to take our hats off, or maybe our hairnets off, to District 51 for using culinary students to bridge a gap in staffing in several school lunchrooms.

Last week, staffing shortages — caused by COVID, other illness and unfilled positions — led to Appleton, Fruitvale, Rocky Mountain and Tope elementary schools and Fruita Middle School having limited food menus.

The kids in these schools had to choose between peanut butter and jelly Uncrustable sandwiches or Lunchables boxes for their entrées, with fruits, vegetables and milk. That’s a pretty boring choice in our opinion.

Each of these schools had just one Nutrition Services staff member available, which wasn’t enough to prepare a better menu. Enter the District 51 Career Center and their plan, called Project Hotshot, which had high school students in the Career Center’s culinary program come in to help out.

“We thought, ‘Well, is there some way that we could get our kids into some of these high-need schools that are suffering from a lack of people being able to prep food in the mornings?’ Thank goodness, D51 was like, ‘Yeah!’ ” Career Center Principal Cam Wyatt said. “The Career Center’s all about hands-on learning. We have a saying here: ‘Allow your eyes to see what your hands are doing and your mind is thinking.’ ”

Beginning Monday, one group of students arrived at each school and prepared meals from 8-11 a.m. Then a different small group comes in from 11-2 p.m. to serve the meals.

Talk about a win-win for the district. Their high school students get real, practical experience in a professional kitchen that they can put on their resume after graduation and their elementary and middle school students get better lunch options.

“The kids can now put on their resume, ‘I worked for D51 in a cafeteria, I have my food (handlers) card, I have my ServSafe card, and I’m prepared for to be productive and professional.’ They’ve already tested the waters,” Wyatt said.

We’ve also all heard how important a good lunch is for students.

“School lunch is critical to student health and well-being, especially for low-income students — and ensures that students have nutrition they need throughout the day to learn. Research shows that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches reduces food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health,” according to the Food Research and Action Center.

While schools across the state, especially on the Front Range, are having to close down because of their own shortages in nutritional services staffing, District 51 has shown creativity in handling this situation. It led to a really positive and unique solution to this problem.

If other districts look at District 51 as a model on how to deal with this problem, we could have a state-wide solution come out of Mesa County.

As for the district and the teachers and administrators who made this happen, they deserve plenty of praise. We hope they, and others in the district, continue to look at problems in creative ways that benefit our students. We also think Project Hotshot would be worth adding as a regular part of the culinary program’s curriculum. Well done.