Bagged meals at Lawrence High School ready to be loaded on buses for delivery.

School districts throughout the Mercer County area have been working hard to keep free and reduced food programs running to continue to assist students transitioned to remote learning during the ongoing health crisis.

Food insecure children and families in each of the area’s school districts rely on their schools for meals that they otherwise would not have. 

With remote learning now in effect for more than a month, school officials have been collaborating with their food service companies and towns to continue this necessary service for their students. 

Partnerships between the food service companies and their staff, district administration and volunteers have been working to fill bags and bellies for families in need. 

Regardless of the number of students who suffer from food insecurity, every district has implemented comprehensive food pickup or delivery plans to create a seamless, sustainable connection to their vulnerable populations.

The Lawrence Township Public Schools serves about 500 kids through its free and reduced meal plan. Everyone from food service management to bus drivers are incorporated into the effort to bring meals to those who need them. 

The district created a list using auto-dialers to contact families eligible to be on the free and reduced meal plan.The transportation coordinator then used that list to create delivery routes to get food to those who expressed need. The door-to-door no-contact delivery service is serviced by about 10 bus drivers.

Meal packages are assembled at Lawrence High School, which has a nearly 9,000-square-foot cafeteria, plenty of room for workers to collaborate at safe distances. Meals for each section of the district are gathered and carefully kept to minimal contact.

While adhering to social distancing safety guidelines, a handful of cafeteria workers and people from administration put together meal packages while they rock out to funk and disco-inspired playlists.

“You have to see it to see what’s actually occurring as you watch the stress melt off of people,” said Thomas Eldridge, LTPS business administrator and board secretary. “Because they’re working, they’re doing something good. They’re all singing and dancing, and they know they’re doing something important.”

The combination of working towards feeding their students and having fun while doing it gives workers a chance to get away from the chaos of the current situation and make a difference. 

Mary Beth Dilorenzo, LTPS supervisor of dining services, worked as a liaison with the district’s food provider, Maschio’s Food Services. She said that all parties immediately stepped up to care for the district’s kids. 

Working to amend their packaging and delivery process to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, LTPS has moved to lessen the amount of days per week workers spend packaging. They put together both perishable and shelf-safe items for longer lengths of time to be delivered, therefore minimizing the number of gatherings and risk for workers and families. 

When first confronted with the obstacles of schools moving to remote learning, Maschio’s employees at LTPS were not sure if collecting partial unemployment would be an option. Despite this lingering question, workers expressed that they were willing to volunteer their time to help the kids. 

“There’s enough worry going around these days,” Lawrenceville resident DiLorenzo said. “And food insecurity is a big deal and interferes with learning and the process of learning and creates unnecessary anxiety. So we definitely felt like this was really important.”

Assistant food service manager and Lawrence resident Linda Dlabic shared that this is certainly not a “one-man show.” It takes a team of dedicated workers to continue helping local families. 

Regular cafeteria staff members helping with the current process share that they are still there for their students every day, despite remote learning. 

“We just want them to know that we care about them,” said Diane Chester, head cook at Lawrence High School. “We do miss them…We do care about making sure that they get a healthy meal.”

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The teams formed in each district look to cater to their area’s unique needs for an indefinite amount of time. 

Trenton Public Schools had started thinking about what should be done in case of school closings back in February, according to school business administrator and board secretary Jayne Howard. 

They began planning with their food provider, Aramark, for how they would continue to provide free breakfast and lunch to students in need. 

The first week of remote learning, TPS had a low turnout because many parents were unaware of the district’s continued service. Since then, the district’s six designated distribution sites have seen more than 400 kids each on distribution days.

The district uses Trenton Central High School, Kilmer Middle School, Mott Elementary School, Washington Elementary School, Gregory Elementary School and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School to give out meal packages prepared by Aramark. 

As word spreads and more families in need show up to the sites, TPS works to serve their community safely and thoroughly. 

“We will continue indefinitely, because we know that this is something that is unprecedented for our kids and for our parents,” Howard said. “So we’re trying to bring some type of normalcy to their lives.”

Their strictly pickup operation is normally set to run from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on selected days but has stayed open sometimes until 3 p.m. to ensure every family is taken care of. 

“I think they see that we care,” Howard said. “That we’re really trying to service them the best we can in this situation that no one expected us to be in. But we’re still there for them.” 

Seeing what surrounding states were doing with school closings in early March led many New Jersey school districts to begin conversations on how to regulate remote learning for their students and how to serve them in general.

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The West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District encompasses 10 schools in two cities and two counties. 

Understanding the dire need for the 495 students from 355 families who meet meal benefit parameters, the district organized pickup and delivery “care boxes” for those in their area. 

Inventory, communication and safety concerns were sorted out early on so that meals could seamlessly continue to be supplied. 

The process takes many different entities working together to supply food to residents. Participation from the district’s food service company and their vendors helps provide different foods to fill boxes. Just as they are integral to normal daily operations, their extended safety precautions and supplies are essential to West Windsor-Plainsboro’s process. 

Along with bringing in staff to prepare boxes safely, their vendors provide everything from fresh produce to shelf-safe items to support families. 

“We are really keeping safety first and foremost, for not only ourselves, but for our families receiving meals,” WWPRSD district food services manager and wellness coordinator Marcey Behler said. 

Working to support not only students but their families as well, the district places extra items in their “care boxes” to help lessen the load for families in need. 

Working out of High School North in Plainsboro, everyone from administration to local law enforcement are doing their part to provide safe delivery and pickup.

Assisting with bus deliveries and pickup days, police from West Windsor and Plainsboro play their role to ensure safe and smooth operations for workers and families. 

“It’s been phenomenal to get to know these gentlemen and just see how they’re protecting us and keeping the community safe,” Robbinsville resident Behler said. “It’s been a pretty amazing partnership.”

In total, there are about eight Class III officers used for pickup days, to keep to social distancing guidelines and aid in box handoffs. Full-time officers can be seen accompanying the buses that deliver throughout the district. 

Administrative Sgt. Martin McElrath with the Plainsboro Township Police Department explained that the department’s involvement is minimal. Their presence however is nonetheless felt and appreciated. 

“I think it’s a really exceptional thing,” McElrath said. “I take pride in being able to help them with this.”

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While the number of children in need may differ between district locations, the dedication to students does not.

The 150 students who receive free or reduced meals in Hopewell Valley Regional School District have been receiving their meal deliveries since the schools transitioned to remote learning. 

With the added help from a sister program, the district works along with Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township and Pennington to distribute food to all those in need. Their food pantry was opened to help provide families with the additional meals and support they need during this trying time. 

The district’s own food delivery service has expanded to help deliver food pantry meals. 

“It’s really been a powerful experience,” said Thomas Smith, HVRSD superintendent. “The families are just so thankful and overwhelmed by the support that our community has provided them. Not only the meals that we’re delivering for the students on free and reduced lunch but the food pantry deliveries that folks are getting. It’s really been well received by those families who need it.”

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The other districts have formed their own food services as well to continue serving their students. 

In the Princeton Public Schools, there are approximately 500 students, or 350 families, served through the district’s food program. Breakfasts and lunches are distributed from school buses throughout town, while Send Hunger Packing Princeton works to provide dinners for residents as well. The collaboration between PPS and SHUPP is meant to provide food to those who qualify for the federal lunch program.

The Ewing Public Schools provides breakfast and lunch to more than 270 eligible students through joint efforts by its food service department, administrators, secretaries, custodians and security staff. Food supplies are contributed mostly from US Foods and the federal lunch program.

“The students we are servicing are part of our neediest population,” EPSD school business administrator and board secretary Dennis Nettleton wrote in an email interview. “Continuing this service in a manner that is safe for our staff is important for both those students and our community.”

Robbinsville Public Schools’ free and reduced lunch program serves approximately 100 kids and delivers food. Along with the collaboration between the superintendent, director of food services and transportation staff, the district partnered with the Robbinsville Hydroponic Farm three weeks into their services. The farm harvests fresh produce and donates it to participants in the district’s food program.

Bordentown Regional School District has pulled together its Sodexo food service, custodial and maintenance staff, and transportation employees to cater to approximately 90 students in their district. 

Hamilton Township School District works along with their food service provider to make pre-bagged breakfast and lunch for students in the community who are in need. A drive-thru pickup service is available on specified days at Kuser Elementary, Sunnybrae Elementary, Wilson Elementary, Hamilton High School West, Nottingham High School and Steinert High School.

For more information on each district’s programs, please go to the district website linked in the article above.