By Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Review Editor
They shielded themselves under canopies from the sometimes drizzling, sometimes driving rain, but those lightweight shelters did not protect them from temperatures in the high 30s—it was a damp, cold, miserable time to be outside. Repeated wind gusts nearly turned the canopies into kites as the women who normally serve hot meals inside Pitman High School rushed to keep their shelter earthbound in the student parking lot.
This was a scene repeated all over New Jersey on March 23 as food service professionals in public schools across the state spent their second week making sure that children eligible for free or reduced-price meals did not go hungry while school buildings were closed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
Pitman’s schools are providing a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches every Monday until school buildings reopen. On each Thursday, the district’s food service professionals prepare and store hundreds of meals for the next Monday’s deliveries in this Gloucester County community of 8,500 residents. Eligible families were notified of the meal distribution by automated phone calls and emails. They were directed to a website survey, so food service staff could get a rough estimate of how many would participate.
“We made over 600 meals this week,” says Pitman Education Association (PEA) member Vicky Rumaker. While Rumaker is happy to be helping Pitman families, she says she could do without the cold and rain.
Despite the stressful situation and the weather, the atmosphere is a good natured. As parents, grandparents and other guardians drive up to receive bags of food, they are greeted with a smile and a cheerful “Good morning! How are you today?” They drive away with nutrition and a reminder to “Stay safe!”
On this particular Monday, PEA members Betty Jean Hampton and Chris Georgette greet families at a check-in canopy set up in the middle of Linden Avenue. They ask for student PIN numbers, how many breakfasts and lunches are needed, and about any allergies. They hand a ticket to the driver listing the full order.
“One of the lunches this week is peanut butter and jelly,” Hampton explains. “We have ‘back-up bagels’ and other options for children allergic to any ingredients.”
“We also are providing meals for any preschoolers in the household,” Georgette says.
As the drivers pull up to the next stop, Joelle Sweigart, Pitman’s food service manager, greets them and takes their ticket. Drivers stay in their cars for social distancing, while those packing and distributing the food stand apart from one another and wear gloves that they continually exchange for fresh pairs.
“Five and five! or Ten and Ten!,” Sweigart calls out to announce how many breakfasts and lunches are needed. Sometime the call-out is as high as “25 and 25!”
With clean, gloved hands, PEA members Trish Adams, Robin Scipione, Sue Somogy and Vicky Rumaker and the district business administrator, Kelly Brazelton, fill breakfast bags, lunch bags and milk bags for the families.
The bags themselves represent a broader community effort. Reusable by families for other purposes, the bags were donated by the Caffeinated Cyclist, Kadar Orthodontics, OceanFirst Bank, and the borough of Pitman’s Clean Communities program.
Assisting food service staff with the delivery process and tent stability are district custodians and other staff. On this Monday, that’s PEA members David Hampton and Kevin Hoffman, facilities manager Brian Burton, and Walls Elementary School Principal Chris Morris. Last week, PEA member Tom Rumaker was the custodian on duty assisting with the food program.
PEA President Tony Cappello couldn’t be prouder of the work his members do for the students and families of Pitman.
“They do a great job all year round,” Cappello said. “They know our kids. They love our kids. And that’s the most important thing.”