1 Million Meals & Counting: Warren DeShields, Bridgeton Feed a Community

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

BRIDGETON – Warren DeShields and the Bridgeton Public Schools Food Services Department quietly passed a milestone during the coronavirus pandemic this fall when it went over the one million mark in meals served to local youth.

The impressive milepost hit in October, all done under COVID-19 restrictions, covers time when Bridgeton schools has been in session and over the summer.

Mayor Albert Kelly recognized the feat this month during a column in SNJ Today.

Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly. Photo courtesy of Albert Kelly

“As someone who has gone on at some length about the importance of proper nutrition, I don’t believe this accomplishment should be underestimated,” Kelly said. “There might be some who would dismiss this as simply feeding a bunch of poor kids and so it is, but to those who would take such a stance, hear this: For such an effort to even be necessary is really all the commentary required on the subject of income inequality and the need for social justice.”

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DeShields, the director of food services with Bridgeton Public Schools, told Front Runner New Jersey this week the challenges to offer the needed meals during the restriction presented a challenge to keep everyone safe.

“First and foremost is keeping the BFSD (Bridgeton Food Services Department) employees healthy and free of the virus while working together for five-plus hours a day, interacting with the community at the good distribution sites, and possible exposure to staff and students during the hybrid period,” DeShields said.

“Food products and their availability have also been difficult during the pandemic. We can package a good percentage of the product that we serve, but in an effort to cut down on the time we spend in the kitchens for production and making the bags for the students, we are forced to try and procure some items that are pre-packaged.

Warren DeShields in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Warren DeShields

DeShields said every school district in the United States have been forced to do the same thing, challenging manufacturers to keep up with demand.

“We are finding creative ways to package meals for the families so menu fatigue doesn’t become a reason for the. Nit to pick up meals,” he said. “That being said, we’ve also had to change our distribution sites and times to try and accommodate the changes during the  pandemic. When the State was shut down, parents weren’t working and daytime hours worked. Now that most parents have returned to work, we have evening hours that fit most people’s schedules with getting out of work.”

DeShields said feeding students “a true team effort” and gave credit to his squad of 78 employees in feeding some 6,000 students daily in Bridgeton.

“We are working out of four schools where we cook, prepare and package the meals,” DeShields said. “During an inspection, the Cumberland County Health representative said that our operation is just like a food manufacturing facility with all the products that we are housing for distribution. It takes all 78 BFSD employees who work in different capacities along with the district’s Maintenance/Custodial, Security, Transportation, Business and Education teams to achieve success in feeding our students.”

Kelly noted in his column the high priority of serving these meals in locations with high food insecurity. DeShields said that responsibility is not lost on him and his staff as they work to create high-quality meals to the public.

“It’s extremely important to provide meals to students while they’re working remotely from home,” DeShields said. “The same challenges that families had before the pandemic are only intensified during this pandemic. Food insecurity is a  real issue here in Bridgeton and we see ourselves as providing a solution for our families that provides food and nourishment while allowing them to use their personal finances for other household bills.

“If students have food in their homes to eat before or during their online learning, they have fuel to accept the knowledge and meet their educational requirements for the day. This is exactly why all BFSD employees have accepted the “Essential Employee” role and continue to  serve during this unprecedented period of the pandemic,” he added.

DeShields is a past president of the New Jersey School Nutrition Association and was elected as the School Nutrition Association’s Northeast Region Director.

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