As high school students across the country are confined to their homes and experience a virtual education, the once lived-in school hallways, packed with daily bustle and thousands of people, have grown quiet. No students, no teachers, not a person in sight—but that isn’t quite true. Every janitorial staff works heroically to deep-clean all nooks and crannies that could have possibly been tainted. Cafeterias are brimming with freshly-made school breakfasts and lunches; the din of the kitchen echoes throughout the halls. In Ridgewood High School (and all of Ridgewood’s schools), this is the reality. Our janitorial staff and cafeteria staff have been working in the building since school’s official closure on March 16. They all enter a very different, very empty workplace every day, doing the behind-the-scenes jobs that benefit our community in innumerable ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given light to a long list of heroes across the world and more specifically, in Ridgewood. The doctors and nurses who put their lives at risk everyday to save others, the emergency service workers, the firefighters, the police officers; chief among these heroes, our teachers and administrators who made drastic adaptations in mere days of RHS’s transition to online school. However, another group of essential workers that must not be overlooked are our food service professionals.
The members of the cafeteria staff at Ridgewood High School are a vital part of our community under normal circumstances, and their work in the face of this unprecedented crisis is proving to be no less valuable. There are many students across New Jersey and the rest of the country that rely on school for regular and nutritious meals during the school year. According to North Jersey News, all over the state “nearly half a million low-income students receive free meals at school, while more than 64,000 get them at reduced prices.” Although schools are no longer operating, this need for free meals does not disappear, and now with financial insecurity hitting many families hard, food security for all is paramount. Across the Ridgewood school district, 1% of students are in need of school meals, a little under 60 individuals.
Ms. DiChiara, the Food Service Director of Ridgewood Public Schools, has been working alongside the rest of her staff to continue to produce healthy breakfasts and lunches for students that depend on school meals. Like countless other professions, Ms. DiChiara and her staff now face the added challenge of keeping everything sanitary and safe, as well as abiding by all other CDC guidelines, but Ms. DiChiara assured that she and her team felt “well prepared to deal with this new norm because much of [their] job regularly focuses on food safety and sanitation.” Food preparation standards have essentially stayed the same for the cafeteria crew, and DiChiara feels very safe continuing her work because of these practices.
Out of 52 total food service professionals working across the district, 45 have been laid off. The remaining employees include Ms. DiChiara, four members with reduced shifts to match production needs, and two members who work in both Ridgewood schools and other Pomptonian-serviced districts in Bergen County. At this point, hundreds of thousands of people state-wide have filed for unemployment.
Ridgewood schools’ cafeterias work with the guidance and support of Pomptonian Food Service, a company that has been involved in managing food in New Jersey schools for nearly six decades. Pomptonian consults with districts to make the best decisions for nutrition, supply, and accessibility. DiChiara lauds the organization during the shutdown, stating that “Pomptonian’s number one goal is food safety and [they] strive to provide healthy, appealing meals daily to meet the needs of communities served.” These core values of Ridgewood’s food service provider matter more now than ever.
On weekdays in Ridgewood schools, meals of a wide variety are being prepared in the mornings; staff members arrive at schools at 6 AM and work preparing and packaging meals until 12 PM. Scheduled deliveries of milk, produce, and paper goods are delivered from 6 to 7 AM. From pulled barbeque chicken with mashed potatoes, to salads portioned out in plastic cups, to meatballs, to fresh fruit, granola, and bagels, as well as pre-made drinks and snacks, food service professionals are providing a breadth of cold and hot meals for students every day. Once the food has been cooked, staff portion it out into individual containers, which are then loaded into bags and sent out to students.
Families either have the option to pick up meals at schools from 10 AM to 12 PM or they can have the meals delivered in a contactless fashion directly to their homes. Pickups are completed at BF Middle School in a “grab-and-go” way where staff members, wearing protective gear, bring the packages directly to cars. Deliveries are made from 10 AM to 11 AM by “delivery couriers,” who pick up the packages from schools and drop them off on students’ front steps. Couriers communicate with families about the best time to complete the drop off, making sure that there is no face-to-face contact. Students receive the premade meal with no strings attached, and are able to eat a balanced breakfast and lunch. This program does not operate on weekends.
Although kitchens are running on a much smaller scale than usual, students benefit greatly from having the help and support of our schools. Food and financial security have grown tenuous for some as the shutdown has progressed, so receiving meals from the school district is a significant help that takes a lot of stress off of students and their families. For all of the laid off staff members, the Ridgewood community must show their support and help them, as well as everyone currently facing great hardship.
Now that schools are officially closed for the rest of the year, the fact that food service for students has been running smoothly for the past two months has proven the system’s sustainability for the future. In times like this, it is important that the community comes together to not only help those who are in need, but to also support the unemployed and all of the essential workers on the front lines. The food service professionals throughout the school district are very much essential, and they are greatly appreciated for all of the truly amazing work they continue to do in providing for Ridgewood’s students.
“It is very important to provide food security to students everywhere,” DiChiara says. “I hope that a familiar school meal helps a student to adjust to the changes impacting their recent days.” Familiar school meals do that and so much more.
Special thanks to Maureen DiChiara for providing photos and information, as well as her continued leadership during this time.
Caroline Loscalzo & Logan Richman
News Editor & Digital Content Editor