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Schools preparing bagged meals to keep students fed amid shutdown

Schools preparing bagged meals to keep students fed amid shutdown

Only $5 for 5 months

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Brown paper bags filled with sandwiches and other lunch items were stacked onto shelves in coolers at the high school here, and cafeteria workers created an assembly line between lunch periods to pack even more sandwiches for the coming days.

“It’s business as usual,” Egg Harbor Township School Superintendent Kim Gruccio said.

“Or unusual,” she said.

The district was preparing 2,000 meals to feed students on Tuesday when schools are closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the state, the nation and the world.

The disease, which originated in China and has rapidly spread across the globe, can cause cough, fever and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. So far, there have been 68 deaths in the United States and three in New Jersey.

While there are no confirmed cases in Atlantic, Cape May or Cumberland counties, schools across the state were ordered Monday by Gov. Phil Murphy to close by Wednesday.

Many schools, including Egg Harbor Township, had preemptively made the decision over the weekend to shut down and move to remote learning. One of the most important pieces often cited by school and state officials amid the closures was the plan for feeding students who rely on school meals daily.

Of the 7,400 students who attend public schools here, 3,200 receive free and reduce-price meals, said Egg Harbor Township School District’s food service director Thomas Beck.

He said the district was prepared for the situation.

“We are at our best when things are at their worst,” Beck said, crediting his staff of 64 for eagerly showing up and getting things done.

The district is using the kitchens at the high school and the Alder Avenue Middle School for meal preparation and setting up distribution sites there and at the Davenport Primary School where parents and caregivers can pick up bagged breakfasts and lunches daily between 7 and 10 a.m.

As with all districts, Beck said the plans are fluid.

“It’s not written in stone. If we feel like we need to adjust it, we will,” he said.

In Vineland, which closes Tuesday through April 20, food service director Purvesh Patel of Sodexo said meal distributions will occur daily this week and then, beginning March 23, once a week on Mondays at all of the district schools between 7 and 11 a.m. When they arrive, parents and caregivers will receive a week’s worth of breakfast and lunch. All students in the district can pick up a meal.

“We’re trying to limit the interaction,” Patel said. “We prepare for these types of situations, so we just needed to reactivate our plans.”

Because Vineland is a big city, Sodexo works with the school district to update the emergency plans yearly, he said.

“As far as food supply chains, that hasn’t been affected yet, so we planned well enough ahead of time to bring all these items in,” Patel said.

Like in Egg Harbor Township, the district is preparing cold lunches like sandwiches or salads, as well as other required meal components to meet regulatory guidelines.

“That’s the challenging part,” Patel said. “Vineland, the superintendent and the business administrator have been working very hard to streamline this process for our parents and our community, so we’ve been working 24/7 to make it easier on parents.”

Meanwhile, legislators in New Jersey are considering a bill that would aid school districts in feeding children who receive free and reduced-price school meals during the extended closure.

The state Assembly unanimously approved the bill Monday that would give direction to school districts on the provision of school meals to be distributed to students at local centers in the event the New Jersey Department of Health or health officer of the jurisdiction orders a school to close. Schools unable to provide meals would be required to establish a food voucher system to ensure that all children continue to have access to proper nutrition.

“While the way communities are coming together is encouraging and the steps being taken by schools is commendable, we must ensure every district has the broad-based support necessary for meals programs to go on uninterrupted,” legislative sponsors said in a statement. “Requiring school districts to collaborate with county and municipal government, as well as local organizations, to identify school meal distribution sites that are a walkable distance and as accessible as possible is imperative.”

The bill, part of the Assembly’s package of legislation in response to COVID-19, now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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