Talk about essential workers.
While the rest of the school buildings are dark, a small group of Central Valley United Employees members work together every weekday morning to make sure needy families are fed.
It’s a big job, as they prepare, pack and distribute more than 750 lunches per day, complete with breakfast items for the next morning. If you do the math, since the pandemic closed schools in March this small army of School-Related Professionals has provided more than 35,000 meals to needy students throughout the rural Mohawk Valley district.
“People really depend on this food,” said CVUE food service worker Amy Johnston as she lined up hundreds of bags ready to be filled.
“There’d be a lot of starving kids, believe me,” said Dorothy Knapik, a teacher aide at the high school. “We’re glad to be able to do this for them.”
“I’m really proud of our team, how quickly they stepped up and worked through all the logistics to make this work,” said Superintendent Jeremy Rich. He credited CVUE leaders Mark Fresco and Adam Waldo with helping to pull together the 20-plus workers needed every day to make it all happen.
“I’m so proud of our members,” Fresco said. “A lot of our kids would go hungry otherwise.”
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, who stopped in to thank the crew and see them in action, said these kinds of efforts vividly show how schools really are the core of their communities. “Imagine where these families would be without their public school,” he said.
Community is an important concept in this newly consolidated district, the result of a merger several years ago between the Ilion and Mohawk districts. On the first day of classes in September 2015, the Central Valley district began providing school meals to all students under the Community Eligibility Provision program that allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to students regardless of household income. The economic downturn and loss of jobs have only made things tougher for local residents.
“I can’t tell you how appreciative — really overwhelmed — people were when we started delivering these meals,” said Central Valley Food Service Director Barb Cristman. She posts the hand-written thank you notes on the cafeteria wall. “You guys are a blessing to so many familes,” says one. “Thank you so much for all that you guys are doing.”
Bus drivers like Scott Loiacono, David Liddle and Jeff Keller, who rack up hundreds of miles delivering meals, said the kids often run to the buses because they’re so glad to see them.
“You’re like Santa Claus every day!” Pallotta said.
“Sometimes it feels like that,” Keller laughed. “I’m working on the belly.”
For families who live close to town, teachers volunteer at school pick-up sites, distributing not just lunches, but everything from homework packets to Chromebook chargers.
“I’ve also ridden on some of the bus delivery routes — the kids are so happy to see you,” said seventh-grade ELA teacher Jennie Tofani. “It’s so important to keep up the connection with the kids any way you can.”