April 8, 2020

PPS Teams Up with Local Organizations To Provide Meals for 500 Students

By Donald Gilpin

Remote learning is one thing. Remote eating is something quite different. This past month, Princeton Public Schools (PPS) had to figure out how to distribute more than just the varied pre-K through 12th grade coursework to children in homes throughout the district.
Distributing food for the more than 500 food-insecure students who rely on the federal free and reduced-price lunch program posed challenges that could not be solved through online electronic channels.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread and requirements for schools changed daily through late March, PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane, a group of PPS staff members, and community leaders worked together to design, revise, communicate, and implement a plan for distributing thousands of meals to Princeton families in need.

The challenge was to protect the health of the children and their families by following Gov. Phil Murphy’s social distancing protocols and at the same time get food to families, many of whom had no access to a car that would enable them to pick up food from the schools.

The plan, devised by Cochrane in conjunction with District Transportation Director Donna Bradin and K. Lee Dixon of Nutri-Serve, the PPS food service director, came up with a plan to use 14 school buses and their drivers to set up mobile meal distribution sites in key neighborhoods and locations throughout Princeton. They would provide a box containing two weeks of meals for each of their 500 students.

Dixon initially had less than 48 hours to develop and order a menu that met federal guidelines and could last for several weeks. She confronted difficulties in trying to create a menu that included a variety of items such as soup, pasta, rice, and beans.

“The smallest bag of rice we can order is a 25-pound bag,” she said, “and it’s the same with the beans. Pasta comes in 10-pound bags. The bulk packaging makes it very hard for us to provide individually-sized portions for students. We wanted to offer the students soup, but the soups we provide daily at PPS are all homemade soups. And adding cans of soup to boxes that were already very heavy was going to add considerable weight and bulk.”

Liliana-Clotilde Morenilla, who does community outreach for the PPS and collaborates with Share My Meals Inc., the Hank Pannell Learning Center, and Princeton Human Services, urged Dixon to go a step further. “These kids are hungry, particularly the high schoolers,” she wrote to Dixon in a March 22 email.

In collaboration with local food pantries and approved distributors, Dixon worked to provide enough food to last for a month so that the district could feed its students over spring break, something not required by the government but an initiative the district viewed as “the right thing to do,” according to Cochrane.

With the help of Princeton Human Services, Arm in Arm, Send Hunger Packing Princeton (SHUPPrinceton), the Princeton Children’s Fund, and others, Dixon was able to provide four weeks of breakfasts and lunches that included fresh apples, oranges, carrots, and romaine lettuce, as well as cereal, instant oatmeal, graham crackers, fruit cups, juice, peanut butter and jelly, bread, and a soup base that makes five gallons of soup.

The boxes were packed, and the next challenge was to get them to the families who needed them. The PPS Transportation Department, led by Bradin, organized school bus drivers to take boxes of food to more than a dozen locations in Princeton, locations within walking distance of the families that needed food.

There were two distribution times for families, 11:30 a.m. for the boxes and 2 p.m. for the bags of fruits and vegetables. On Thursday, March 27 the PPS distributed a month’s worth of meals to nearly 500 students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“I am proud that we have ensured our students will receive meals over spring break [April 6-10] by including those meals in our last distribution, which was designed to last through the end of April,” Cochrane wrote in an email on Monday, April 6. “After break we will be moving to distributing food once a week.”

All drivers and assistants will be wearing masks and gloves. Portable tables will be set up at each distribution site with one bag of meals placed on each table at a time. In addition, cones will be lined up 6-10 feet apart with signs noting that people must line up one person to a cone to maintain social distancing. Buses going to Community Park Elementary School will have Spanish-speaking assistants on board to ensure clear communication.

On April 14, the Tuesday after spring break, another loaf of bread will be delivered to students who qualify, along with additional meals provided by SHUPPrinceton, which provides meals on the weekends for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

On Tuesday, April 21, there will be another SHUPPrinceton delivery, perhaps including toiletries, and on April 28 the distribution of one week’s worth of meals for each student will begin.

PPS is working with SHUPPrinceton on the possibility for going beyond the district mandate and also providing dinner for families. “Dinner is the ‘missing meal,’ and we are committed to partnering with others in our community to help provide that,” Cochrane wrote. He suggested that SHUPPrinceton may be looking to raise money to support the costs of dinner for 500 students and their caregivers.

The distribution system with 14 buses positioned in key locations throughout town also makes it possible to get other items safely to families. Last Friday, for example, jaZams worked with the district to provide books and toys for younger students in advance of spring break.

“It’s going great,” said Dixon on Monday. “Due in part to clear leadership and our distribution methods, we are able to reach all of our most vulnerable students. The last delivery of food is enough to last a month including spring break, which is amazing because normally we would not be feeding students over break.”

Cochrane added, from the front lines of the food distribution project, “Our model of distribution is now one other districts want to copy. It places food in the homes of a high percentage of our students on the federal lunch program while also responding appropriately to the growing spread of the coronavirus and the governor’s order restricting movement and limiting the number of people in any one place.”

Cochrane went on to praise the “commitment and compassion” of the food services and transportation directors, the bus drivers, and the transportation aides who have contributed to the success of this program.

“Ms. Dixon and Ms. Bradin are two of the unsung heroes of this effort, along with the 14 bus drivers and 14 transportation aides who left their families and their homes to help pack and deliver this food,” Cochrane said.