Long after dusk fell on a busy street corner in Bridgeton, parents pulled up in cars to get bags of free food — the meals their children would have received at school.
Like many across the region, the Cumberland County school district has found ways to feed thousands of hungry students learning remotely while classrooms are closed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools are distributing free breakfast and lunch meals at grab-and-go and drive-through locations, along neighborhood bus routes and even door-to-door.
They are helping not only those who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals who may otherwise go hungry, but any family that is stretched thin and needs food.
"We have to do our part, even more so now," said Warren DeShields, Bridgeton schools' food services director. "With kids being home, learning is hard enough."
Bridgeton, which enrolls about 6,000 students, distributes food on Mondays and Thursdays — enough for seven days. A staff of nearly 80 prepares and packages the meals.
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Working in an assembly-line fashion, a handful of employees set up a distribution station last Monday outside a school on Pearl Street. As cars pulled up curbside, workers loaded bags of food into the vehicles. Others walked up to the location.
"I really like it," said parent Jeaneen Copes after picking up food for her daughter, 10. "You never know anybody's household situation."
"Thanks a lot!" another woman yelled before speeding away. Motorists honked their horns and waved.
In one day, the district handed out 17,120 meals at four locations, including breakfasts, lunches, snacks and fresh fruit, enough for each child in a family for three days. On Thursdays, the district gives out food for the remainder of the week.
Since schools closed in March, Bridgeton has distributed 1.2 million meals and the program has been heralded as a model around New Jersey. The program has flexible hours, and parents can pick up food without their child present.
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"We have so many barriers to kids learning. Nutrition should not be one of them," said Adele H. LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. a nonprofit advocacy group. "We have to make sure our kids stay fed."
Because of the pandemic and its economic fallout, the number of children in food-insecure households could reach 18 million, the highest in decades, according to Feeding America, the nation's leading domestic hunger-relief charity. Research says children who eat a school lunch perform better academically and are better behaved.
To help meet the nutrition gap, the federal government relaxed income eligibility rules for school meals and made it easier for districts to feed all children outside the building. Most districts that have in-person classes typically send meals home with students because of safety rules.
"All of a sudden you have families who are really in need," said Reginald Ross, president of the School Nutrition Association. "We really want to make it easy."
DeShields, a former sous chef, said his district tries to provide students with popular favorites they would eat at school like pizza on Fridays. The items are ready to serve or can be heated in a microwave.
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"As long as I'm around, they won't go hungry," said Monique Goff, a cook at Bridgeton's Buckshutem Road School.
In Cherry Hill, free meals are available on Mondays at the district's two high schools. So far, more than 453,000 meals have been distributed, spokesperson Barbara Wilson said.
At Cherry Hill East, a table was erected under a blue tent where Ted Bridges, general manager for Aramark, which operates the district's food services, set up a grab-and-go in the parking lot last week.
Bridges accommodated a parent who arrived early, handing her a week's supply of food for three children, including pasta Bolognese, hot dogs, hamburgers and pork tacos. He added a gallon of milk for each child.
"We want to make what they like," Bridges said. "We want them to eat."
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Inside the school, a kitchen crew was busy unloading hundreds of boxes and packaging items for the next week, including chicken-and-waffle sandwiches and smiley fries. Chef Mario Cascone called it a labor of love to help those in need.