The school nutrition team at the Camden, New Jersey School District has not had a day off since the COVID-19 pandemic took off in the U.S. in March. And that includes weekends.
But that’s not a complaint from them at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
It’s a badge of pride in the name of the 11,000 students and families they serve.
“We have a team of about 50 people who all have come together to provide access nutritious meals for our students and their families,” said Arlethia Brown, the School Nutrition Director for the Camden School District. “We are doing everything possible to make sure our students and families have access to meals and that there is no break in service.
“We keep working to make sure that we give them food that we just don’t consider to be healthy and nutritional, but also food items we know that they’re going to like and that they’re going to want to get. At this point, we’re serving just about 25,000 meals a week throughout the pandemic.”
A typical recent week includes food preparation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday and then hub pickups and deliveries on Monday and Thursday. Food is still prepared on delivery days, too. Special arrangements are also made for deliveries to families with certain needs on Saturday and Sunday.
Knowing people have varying tastes and enjoy variety, Arlethia and her team make it a point to switch up menus as much as possible. That said, dairy is an integral part of each meal, whether it’s milk and yogurt for breakfast, cheese for lunch and dinner or ice cream for a special treat.
“We always include milk in our meals.” Arlethia said. “We do grilled cheese, pizza, pasta dishes with cheese, mac and cheese yogurt, ice cream. Our kids have reported to us before that they really enjoy the cheese items, so those are a staple. Hershey’s has donated ice cream treats as a special treat during the pandemic, and that’s been a blessing. The kids and parents both really enjoy them and it’s a little something special that helps draw them in to us and the meals. We try to incorporate the ice cream once a week.
The American Dairy Association North East has stepped up to help Camden families by donating equipment to help transport milk and meals to students and their families.
“These partnerships like the one we have with the American Dairy Association North East are essential,” Arlethia said. “They get the word out, they drive the students and families to us, they help us deliver meals and they are an incredible resource for us.”
The partnerships Camden has also help enforce and strengthen an important message: No matter the age or situation, there is no stigma attached to receiving a free meal.
“We don’t turn anyone down. We don’t know what anyone’s circumstances are. Anyone who comes to us gets a meal,” Arlethia said.
“There is nothing to be ashamed of. A good, healthy meal is a good, healthy meal.”
Although the future of schools is uncertain, there are still plans to be made and work to be done.
But Arlethia and staff are finally going to get a day off in recognition of the Memorial Day holiday.
For all the work they do in keeping the Camden community fed and well-nourished with milk and other dairy products, it’s a well-earned day off.