Dear Planet Princeton Editor,
The Princeton Public Schools district has carried out two separate meal distributions to the 500 or so students in the free and reduced meal program since the announcement of the schools closure on March 16. In both instances, the “meals” have consisted of heavy boxes with a two-week supply of unappetizing, highly processed, entirely packaged or canned food that did not meet federal school lunch guidelines.
The first distribution lacked required components such as milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain bread. Advocates for children complained. The second distribution then did add fresh fruits, carrots, and lettuce, but lacked milk and whole-grain bread or any other fresh ingredients. In both distributions, cereal (but no milk), peanut butter, and jelly were the main source of protein for the entire four-week period, other than a 10-pound bag of spaghetti (but no tomato sauce) and a container of soup base. The items provided had very high sugar, high sodium, high preservatives, and low nutrient ingredients. The majority of Princeton households would reject these “meals” as wholly inadequate and unhealthy for their children.
A cursory survey of what was done in other districts revealed that daily “grab-and-go”, freshly prepared meals, in compliance with federal guidelines, were provided at other area school districts. After the first two weeks, other districts have moved to a twice-weekly or weekly “grab-and-go” model, but continue to provide freshly prepared complete meals with all the required components (whole grain bread, low-fat milk, fresh fruits, vegetables, fresh protein, etc.). Other districts have not copied the “Princeton’s model” as Superintendent Cochrane has publicly claimed.
The representative for Nutri-serve, the district’s food services vendor, K. Lee Dixon, was quoted by a local newspaper claiming she had “less than 48-hours to develop and order a menu” to plan the second delivery, which belies the low priority and lack of planning that has gone into this process. The Princeton Board of Education should call for an immediate review and evaluation of the performance of Nutri-serve and Ms. Dixon.
I brought my concerns to the attention of the Princeton Board of Education and the administration after the first delivery took place. I received excuses as to lack of time and availability of supplies, and assurances that the next delivery would comply with the existing USDA requirements. I am relieved that the district seems to have come around to the idea of a more manageable weekly distribution going forward, versus a twice-monthly model, which forces families without cars to figure out how to carry home boxes weighing 30-40 pounds, and deprives them of these meals for the next two weeks, if they miss the narrow pick-up window.
However, it appears that the responsibility for this weekly distribution may have been shifted to Send Hunger Packing, an independent nonprofit not funded by the district, according to a letter to the editor published on April 15 in the Town Topics newspaper. In a difficult-to-follow description of the delivery plan, Ross Wishnick, chair of the Princeton Human Services Commission and founder of SHUPP, describes what appears to be a poorly thought out plan to deliver a week’s supply of nearly 10,000 meals that will require adequate storage and refrigeration that many of the families who may receive these meals may not have. If this is carried out, many of these meals will likely go to waste. Such an ineffective use of scarce resources at a time of such dire need is unacceptable.
There are a number of agencies and churches that have been working in Princeton for years addressing the food needs of our more vulnerable neighbors (Arm in Arm, ShareMyMeals. the Princeton Mobile Pantry.) They know how to do this job better than anyone. A task force that would allocate and coordinate the available resources among all these agencies and the district is needed. SHUPP and the district need to put their egos aside and share and coordinate their resources with the rest of the agencies and faith-based organizations that together make up the community’s safety net. It may add an extra layer of effort and complexity to the process, but it will get the job done more effectively.
The Princeton school district has the moral and legal obligation to provide adequate meals to some 500 children. The district gets reimbursed a reasonable amount by the USDA ($5-$6 per day, per child) to provide healthy, nutritious food. The district should not view this as a “charitable” endeavor on its part. A “beggars can’t be choosers” approach to its obligation is a discredit to the high standards it prizes itself to uphold. Princeton’s tax payers, which include the families that rely on the free and reduced meal program, deserve better.
Ms. Juega is a Princeton resident and is the founding executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense Fund.