The impact is far from lost on Dave Buchholtz. He hears it from grateful students and families almost every day.

“If I had a dime for the amount of times I’ve heard ‘God bless you’ or ‘Thank you’ or ‘This means a lot to us,’ I’d be a rich man. I wouldn’t be talking to you on the phone right now.”

Dave is the School Nutrition Director of the Paterson School District, which serves meals to roughly 25,000 students. It is one of the largest districts in New Jersey.

With such a massive district and so many students and families to serve, Dave and his team of district officials knew they quickly needed to get a plan in motion. And they did just that.

“From Day 1, our district has realized the COVID-19 situation could be a crisis for the city, families and students,” Dave said. “We knew families were going to be in desperate need of food. So, we, as a district, worked together to establish food distribution sites.

According to Dave, when COVID-19 meal distribution began in mid-March, the district was serving 3,000 meals per week. As of mid-May, the program is running out of eight school sites and serves 11,000 meals per week.

In fact, since the start of meal distribution, the district has handed out more than 500,000 free meals and is the state leader in meal distribution, according to independent education outlet Chalkbeat.

“Families have embraced what we’re doing,” said Dave, who credits robocalls, social media, websites and app alerts as effective promotion strategies for his district’s meal sites.

Part of what the families have embraced are the school meal staples of milk, cheese and other dairy foods. According to Dave, dairy is, was and will remain an essential part of all meals handed out.

“They’re all key to us,” he said. “We’ve found people have really enjoyed the cheese products. We’ve incorporated nacho cheese into meals and it’s gotten a good response.

“But we obviously have milk. Milk is our No. 1 dairy product we make sure we get into our meals. Milk is going through the roof for us.”

Dave was quick to express that meal distribution efforts of the school district are team efforts both internally with district representatives and externally with community partners.

The American Dairy Association North East has partnered to provide supplies necessary in delivering meals. Other partners include the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Rutgers University Co-Operative Extension, the United Way, the New Jersey Food Bank and local farmers markets that are donating produce to put into meals.

And for Dave, those partnerships tie the meaning together for him.

The meaning to him is simple: To him, it’s all about the community.

“Paterson is dear to me in many ways, in my heart and in my life,” Dave explained. “My wife is from Paterson. My wife’s family lived in Paterson. I’m just extremely grateful I’m able to give back to the community that helped raise my wife and my family. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

“I’m just happy I have the ability to help Paterson.”