Storm Stories: Child Nutrition Steps Up During Sandy

Directors share experiences of working—and living—through Superstorm Sandy.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

Damage from Hurricane Sandy in Brooklyn.

When Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard on Oct. 29, millions of people were affected with rising water, downed trees and loss of power. School districts weren’t immune to Sandy’s effects. FSD talked with two child nutrition professionals to find out how their programs are dealing with Sandy’s aftermath.

Ruth Arnold is the operations manager with Nutri-Serve Food Management for several New Jersey districts, including Little Egg Harbor on the Jersey coast.

“The district that was most affected by Sandy was Little Egg Harbor Township. They were hit so bad…it was crazy. It was very challenging to talk to the director because there was no electricity and the cell phone towers were down. An occasional text would come through. The very first thing that happened was that the district decided that there were so many people in the community who lost their homes—we had employees who lost their homes—they decided they wanted to feed the community. On Thursday [two days after Sandy hit] the foodservice director and a team of volunteers started preparing meals. I believe we served 2,400 meals on Thursday and Friday. I was able to get there on Friday and witness this firsthand. It was incredible to see all the people who came in to volunteer. There were so many people who couldn’t get to the school, so we had a caravan to deliver meals. I went on one run.

We went to some houses in the neighborhood. It was surreal. Everything was out in the street—washing machines, mattresses, everything. It was incredible how much garbage was out on the street. It was kind of desolate. We knocked on some doors and delivered whatever food we had—soups, sandwiches. It was incredible to see how thankful and grateful these people were. I still can’t wrap my head around people turning around and saying, ‘God, it feels good to eat.’ I heard that from one guy and it just blows my mind. We take food for granted.

One of the homes we delivered food to was one of my directors who worked in Burlington County. She was so appreciative. You don’t realize who you’re helping sometimes.

We were able to get some soup donated from one of the local restaurants and we took that to a shelter in Pinelands School District. Pinelands was so packed that Little Egg opened up [as a shelter]. The shelter was incredible. There were people on cots in classrooms all over. There were all kinds of animals displaced. It was sad.

I had the opportunity to go into some of the houses. One woman opened up her utensils drawer and there was seawater in there. You talked to people and they had walked through hip-height water.

One school in Monmouth County is still closed. All phones and some of the electrical are still out. Brigantine is still out as well. They are doing spaghetti dinners there for the community. We have foodservice employees there who lost their homes. Pleasantville was used as an emergency shelter. The director there said, ‘I know they are so glad to be back at work. They have given their all and more to the homeless people down there. Some of them have lost their homes and they are the ones working to help the others. We are just feeding the people and will figure out how to recoup the costs later. It’s really using what we have to get them fed. We have faith in FEMA and Red Cross to get any costs repaid to the district.’

Food deliveries have been great. As soon as they could get in, they did.

I saw my director, Mike, [in] a whole new light. I saw him rise to the occasion and really do some great stuff. It’s incredible how you can see the best of people in the worst of times. There’s something so beautiful about people helping each other. To be able to be in a position to give something back was really something.

The advice I’d give is to focus on the fact that people need you. Feed them. Worry about the rest of the stuff later. Things like bills are not important in a disaster. What’s important is reaching out and helping people. Don’t underestimate the value of the food you produce and the greatness that it can do. Everyone wanted to do more. Just know that just doing anything is enough.”

Al Benjunas is the foodservice director for Chartwells in the Stamford (Conn.) School District.

“Sandy knocked out power to seven of our 20 schools. We didn’t have any flood damage. Of [the seven that lost power], four had generators, which allowed us to keep a lot of our product refrigerated. The three that did not we had to go in and move product around to other schools with our district trucks. We did lose some power. We are back up and running now.

The challenges that we faced were getting product in to open when we did on Wednesday (the week after Sandy) and getting around to all the schools because not all our schools accept deliveries. We have a central warehouse.

We did have to adjust our menus. We were granted an exemption by the USDA because the county was declared a disaster area. We had to write a letter stating all the problems we’re facing having all the products available to us to meet the new regulations. They granted us an exemption from the 7th to the 14th, so we didn’t have to meet the new meal regs; we’re following the old meal pattern until we can get all of our regular deliveries back on track.

My advice is to have some kind of disaster plan in place and make sure you know all of your contacts with the town and district. We worked with the district and we had an emergency contact tree in case they needed us to come in and serve people in the shelters.”