A free meal program started at Wilson Elementary School has filled a need for families in Hamilton Township struggling due to the financial side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The summer program, a partnership between the school and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, proved to be such a necessity that the Hamilton Township Board of Education approved it to continue through June 2021.

Hamilton Township council members Charles Whalen, Pat Papero, Jr. and Anthony Carabelli, Jr. volunteer handing out meals at Wilson Elementary School.

The program started with Wilson Elementary principal May Fermin-Cannon and TASK’s associate director of operations Paul Jensen providing meals at Wilson Elementary every Tuesday. It has now expanded to include a second location at Kuser Elementary.

The meals are provided free, no-questions-asked, first-come-first-serve, with contactless pickup.

Fermin-Cannon anticipated the need in her school community and surrounding area during remote learning in the spring, as the school district worked to distribute five days’ worth of breakfast and lunch for students and their families through the end of the school year.

Fermin-Cannon realized the need for additional food resources would not end, just because the school year had. She wanted to find a way to continue helping throughout the summer.

The Wilson Community Meals Program was the result.

“The social economic status and background of our families always tell us that they’re in need for additional resources,” Fermin-Cannon said. “Our school has a high rate of students who receive free and reduced lunch, that qualify for that.”

At Wilson 73% of students are considered economically disadvantaged. Kuser shares a similar makeup, with 66% of its students in the same category. Both schools are located near the Trenton-Hamilton border and have partnered with TASK.

The hot meals are managed by TASK, and provided by local restaurants. When the program was first underway, Jensen put out a call through the restaurant association. Those who responded and met the criteria have been supplying meals throughout the summer.

Participating restaurants include Texas Roadhouse and Mexican Mariachi Grill. On select weeks other organizations, such as small meal prep company Kenny’s Meals and nonprofit SoupKitchen411 have helped.

Jensen has approval to continue getting meals from these establishments through the end of September. At that time, costs will be reevaluated to determine if it’s feasible for TASK to continue using restaurants or if it needs to move all meal supply in-house.

“His [Jensen’s] role is critical because not only is he in charge of getting the meals and the food, he also brings it to the school, sets it up on his own,” Fermin-Cannon said. “And he also works every week to get volunteers to be there with him, helping distribute.”

On one Wilson distribution date, Mayor Jeff Martin and councilmembers Pasquale Papero Jr., Charles Whalen and Anthony Carabelli Jr. helped give out meals. Volunteers typically are kept to a minimum to abide by COVID-19 safety guidelines. They wear masks and gloves, while the meals come in sealed packages and are grouped together to meet each family’s needs.

“As we interact with the families at a safe distance, they’re always very grateful, extremely grateful,” Fermin-Cannon said.

On the first distribution day at Wilson June 30, only 15 meals were given out. By the next Tuesday, that number jumped to 125 meals.

“The first week I showed up with 300 meals, shooting for the stars,” Jensen said. “Whatever we do not use, we bring back and we distribute through the soup kitchen. We do not let it go to waste.”

Since then, they’ve locked in the number of needed meals at 250. The most recent distribution days cleared out the 250 meals in supply. Jensen explained that on average a family will take three or four meals. This means that roughly 63 to 83 families are being helped through the weekly program.

Kuser held its first community meals day Aug. 20 and will continue throughout the school year. Jensen came prepared with 200 meals for Kuser’s first distribution.

Kuser principal Roberto Kesting said the program will be on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Kuser, located at 70 Newkirk Ave., is using its morning entrance route for outdoor, contactless meal pickups. Families can come down Walker Avenue, where tables will be set up.

Kuser’s program was approved by the school board in early August, after Kesting and Jensen worked through the building use application for the elementary school.

Kesting was first introduced to the work Wilson Elementary and TASK were doing through his friend and colleague Fermin-Cannon.

“She [Fermin-Cannon] thought that this would be a program that my community would benefit from, and it really mirrors what she is doing over there at Wilson,” Kesting said.

Wilson Elementary Community Meals was held every Tuesday from June 30 to Aug. 25 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Outdoor, contactless pickup was held at the school, located at 600 E. Park Ave.

The Wilson program will remain on Tuesdays at the same location, but will start at a later time to ensure no schedule conflicts with the school day.

Before TASK and Fermin-Cannon joined forces, TASK was inquiring about a possible partnership with the Hamilton school district. Wilson was a natural choice with its proximity to the Trenton border and that “it’s an area that has a need,” Jensen said.

When Kuser’s program was suggested to TASK, Jensen saw similar demographics and free and reduced lunch program numbers. These considerations were to make sure that the meal program was needed in that area.

“We do a lot inside the city of Trenton as far as meals go, and we’re looking to expand to other areas that maybe we hadn’t had the opportunity to,” Jensen said. “And that’s when working with the Hamilton schools came up. It’s an area we’ve been looking to get into, because we thought there was a need there and just never had a place to get set up at and then we developed this relationship with the schools.”

Fermin-Cannon was connected with Jensen from TASK through board vice president Pamela Kelly. After covering what the program would entail and what TASK could provide, the partnership was set in motion.

“Given the current state of our country with the economy being the way it is COVID has directly impacted our families,” Fermin-Cannon said. “And this is our way to show our support, to be empathetic and to help the children. We don’t want any child to be hungry and if there’s anything we can do to prevent that we will do that.”

These meal programs are an additional resource for families, and separate from district food distribution.

Kesting plans to reach out to his colleagues at Greenwood Elementary to share information on Kuser’s meal program, just as Wilson has put the word out to its surrounding community.

“We want to help not just our Kuser community but the greater community if we can,” Kesting said.

The exact timing and relevant updates for both school programs will be shared on the schools and district’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. School communication channels and websites will also be used by the principals, as they have been throughout the summer at Wilson. Social media posts list important information on the meal programs in both English and Spanish.

“So this is just one little way that we’re saying to each family, ‘We’re with you. We’re together. We have each other and here’s a nice hot meal for your family for tonight that you don’t have to worry about,’” Fermin-Cannon said.

For more information, contact Paul Jensen at (609) 695-5456, ext. 111 or paulj@trentonsoupkitchen.org.