A look at how Union City Public Schools has served 2 million meals since the start of the pandemic

The district has relied on its tight-knit community to make sure kids stay fed.
Union City
Photograph courtesy of Union City Public Schools

With 14,000 students and 14 schools within a mile and a quarter radius, Union City Public Schools in Union City, N.J., is in one of the most densely populated areas in the country. And due to its unique demographics, many students have parents or grandparents who work for the district’s nutrition team. 

“I have 140 line associates that work with me,” says Chartwells K-12 Resident District Manager Darius Peacock. “And out of that 140, 135 live right here in Union City. Their kids are the students of Union City Public Schools. Their grandkids are the students of Union City Public Schools.”

A majority of those students are also eligible for free or reduced-price meals, so when the pandemic hit last spring, the nutrition team and the greater community knew they would have to find a way to continue providing meals for Union City’s youngest residents. 

Today, the district operates 14 meal sites and recently served its 2 millionth meal since the start of the pandemic. Here’s how the community came together to make sure kids can access food during COVID-19.  

A tight-knit team effort 

Union City Public Schools was determined to get its food distribution program up and running from the start.

“I don't think the question was ever asked, ‘Are we going to do this?’ or ‘How will we do this?’—it was always, ‘Let's do it,’” says Tony Dragona,business administrator and board secretary for the Union City Board of Education, who worked with the nutrition team and other community stakeholders to determine the best way to serve students.

In the few short days leading up to the first meal distribution, the team worked out a plan to provide a week’s worth of meals to students each week. Along with figuring out logistics such as scheduling times for the loading dock, safety was also top of mind since an outbreak at Union City could spread rapidly due to the population being so dense, says Peacock. 

“It's such an overpopulated community that if an outbreak occurs, it's going to be a major outbreak,” he says. “And I don't want that to start just because someone wanted to do something as basic as feeding their family.”

The team was able to limit the number of hours staff had to be at work to ensure they could safely maintain their distance from one another and implemented other safety measures, such as PPE. 

“We're making sure that we check in with [staff] to make sure they don't aren’t sneezing or coughing or that they don't have fever,” Peacock says. “We're doing temperature checks every day; we're taking every precaution possible to make sure that all of our employees are healthy.”  

Getting creative with social media 

When planning the menu, the team stuck to shelf-stable favorites since items have to last throughout the week. Each meal bag includes a flyer which tells students and parents what is being served. 

The nutrition team also took to social media to try and engage students from home. 

“We really put together a couple of Tik Tok videos that are on the website, one showing food safety and how to reheat food the proper way, proper handwashing and being 6 feet apart,” says Peacock. “I'm just having some fun with it. And then, we also did another one showing a little recipe on how to make salsa verde.”

Planning for the winter 

Union City is hoping to begin hybrid learning at some point this semester, with some students receiving in-person instruction. If it does, students would eat meals in the classroom when they’re at school and would be provided meals for the days they are remote learning. Families can also opt to have students go completely virtual. 

For now, though, the district is thinking ahead about how to distribute meals as the weather already begins to turn colder. 

“Those summertime pop up tents aren't cutting it anymore,” says Dragona. “So now, we have to at least look at allowing our foodservice workers to be within a vestibule. Maybe it’s a table in front of a door and the parent comes to the door so we can still do social distancing, but the people that are there the full day are not exposed to the elements.”



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