PATERSON, NJ – With Paterson Public Schools closed through at least March 31 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in New Jersey, the district has enacted free meal pickup programs to provide breakfast and lunch for students across the city.

On Tuesday, which marked the first day schools were shut, the district distributed 5,744 meals at 12 designated sites throughout Paterson. 

By Wednesday, the 200 volunteers handed out 10,860 meals, an 89% increase from the day before, according to district spokesman Paul Brubaker. District officials anticipated the jump, because “the weather was nicer today, so more people came out, and word is getting out about the sites,” he said.

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At each of the designated locations, which include firehouses and houses of worship, Brubaker said “the vibe is generally positive” and volunteers, who range from teachers to parents to district staff members to local clergy, are doing what they can to “keep everyone’s spirits up” during what is a stressful and worrisome time for many New Jersey families.

“The mood is very positive. Some places are playing music and many of the families and students are glad to see each other,” Brubaker said. “Superintendent Shafer has also been visiting each site and we’re leading by example by practicing social distancing and taking precautions.”

Leading up to the state-mandated closure of all New Jersey schools, the district said it worked in cooperation with its food services division, the Paterson Fire Department and local houses of worship to develop a plan to make sure children have access to healthy, nutritious food. 

Districts around the state have developed “health-related closure preparedness” plans that take into account the 500,000 students in the Garden State who rely on meals provided through free and reduced-cost programs.

Besides school closures, the state has also implemented a curfew and the shutdown of gyms, casinos, dine-in restaurant services and malls. Additionally, state officials are advising people to practice social distancing and stay home if they don’t feel well.

During a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said more stringent measures may be on the horizon but nothing has been finalized yet.

“The important thing is that children are getting their education and they’re getting fed. I want to thank the nearly 200 volunteers who helped distribute food,” Superintendent Eileen Shafer said. “As many parents said to us…providing these meals gives them one less thing they need to be concerned about during this difficult time,” she added.

During a typical school day, Brubaker said about 36,000 meals are served, and the district is ready, willing and able to make sure those students receive food during the current closure. And, any leftover food is being donated to local charities and shelters, he said.

“We served 11,000 today and we hope this crisis doesn’t last long enough to get to 36,000 meals and that life returns to normal soon,” he said on Wednesday.

Paterson’s student meals are funded through the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that reimburses the district for the cost of food. All students in the K-12 district are eligible to participate in the program, according to Brubaker. 

The program also serves the district’s pre-k programs, as well as outside programs for early childhood development and a few other agencies, he added. 

The meals – which are prepared by an outside vendor and delivered to each distribution site -  are sealed, shelf-stable and just need to be heated up in a microwave or conventional oven, according to the district. 

Shafer said, “We simply could not move thousands of meals a day without the help of the many volunteers who are giving of themselves at each of these distribution sites.”

“I am also grateful to Paterson Fire Chief Brian McDermott and everyone on his team for making seven firehouses available, and to N.J. Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly for making the White House Recreation Center in Eastside Park available. And I want to thank the leaders in our religious community for opening their doors and becoming distribution sites – specifically, the Rev. Princess Curry at Koinonia Christian Ministries, Pastor Marcus Debnam at the Mighty Sons of God Fellowship Church, the Rev. Kenneth Clayton at St. Luke Baptist Church and Pastor Alfred Steele at Seminary Baptist Church. All of the people who provided space to us have played an enormous role in the efforts to keep Paterson children fed,” Shafer said.

Breakfast and lunch are being provided from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 12 locations across Paterson’s six wards, the district said. The district also launched an Information Call Center last week to field questions from families and staff for school matters related to COVID-19.

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