David Buchholtz, the Director of Food Services at Paterson Public Schools, knows just how much of an issue access to healthy food is in his district. “Having worked in Paterson for over 25 years, I know when kids leave school, many go home to households which may not have any food,” he says. So, when the USDA started the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), bringing it to his district was an easy decision. “Food insecurity is a real issue in Paterson and it seems to be getting worse, so I knew the time was right,” says Buchholtz.
According to Buccholtz, the issues in Paterson are the same that any large urban city faces. “I was at a meeting last week and the PTO president confirmed that students in her school are always walking in with bags of junk food from the bodegas,” he explains. He adds that, “Some [students] skip school lunch then complain later in the day of a stomach or a headache.” To solve this, he’s working with local organizations to promote nutrition programs. With these partners, he wants to communicate “the importance of a healthy diet and establishing good eating habits at a young age.”
Though the decision to bring CACFP to Paterson was an easy one, the task itself wasn’t. “An added program also means more paperwork and oversight, and to handle that, my office is currently going through a restructuring,” Buchholtz explains. “Believe it or not, my greatest challenge has been the sponsorship paperwork of renewing all sites to be able to participate in the program… the paperwork could be too overwhelming for the average district to handle, however NJDA has been working to reduce the burden of paperwork as a way to encourage more districts to apply.”
Thankfully, the hard work is paying off. Since the launch of the program, 100% of parents surveyed believe that it was a great idea.
The majority of Buchholtz’s budget to bring healthier foods to the Paterson district hinges on reimbursement from federal nutrition programs. “The higher the participation, the more federal dollars the district will receive, and, in turn, more dollars then can be reinvested into our existing programs or used to kickstart new initiatives,” Buchholtz explains.
So, in order to keep up the pace with increased daily demand, he began investigating reimbursable meal vending. He soon realized that it was the perfect next step for Paterson. “Fast forward to last year, when I heard about the NJCNF grant [provided by Reinvestment Fund], I knew immediately that I wanted to use the funds for the vending project,” he explains. “I was very happy and grateful when Reinvestment Fund agreed to award Paterson the grant. Many people in the district are waiting patiently for the first-ever reimbursable meal vending machine to be unveiled. It will be a big event.”
The vending machine will live in a full-service community center where adults go for GED classes or dental services, and where students go to do homework, study, access WiFi and socialize with peers. Installing the machine there is the first step before branching out into other locations. Because there are a lot of “unknowns” in the space, from when people will arrive to how many will show up each day, the vending machine is the perfect option—and it’s the perfect way to test out the project’s potential. “I can buy the machine and I can run the pilot without really tapping into my budget,” Buchholtz explains.
When Buchholtz first took on the project, he didn’t know quite how involved it would be. “Developing the planogram was a big undertaking,” he explains. But Reinvestment Fund stepping in moved the process along. “I owe a great deal of gratitude to Reinvestment Fund for providing the addition dollars to help me with the planning phase,” Buchholtz says. ”Looking back,” he adds,” I am glad I went through it because I learned a great deal… it feels great that we have completed this phase of our vending project, and now it is time to move to the next step.”
So what does Buchholtz hope to see with the new project? As with all Buchholtz’s decisions, “My goal with the healthy vending machine was always to simply provide kids with nutritious meals at no cost outside normal school hours. To provide them with another option, rather than having them go to the nearest bodega,” he explains. “I’m realistic in the sense that I know it may start a little slow, but, overall, I hope it is well-received and kids enjoy what is offered,” he says.
Every time the machine is used, the transaction will be digitally recorded. For students, the purchase will be free, but for adults, there will be a cost. Buchholtz will be reimbursed for whatever they spend on the machine. Profitability may not happen, but he hopes that whatever reimbursement they get is “enough to cover the basic costs of operating and filling the machine.” “I believe once the initial novelty of the machine wears off,” he says, “we’ll have a much better idea as to how impactful the machine really is.”
ABOUT NJ CHILD NUTRITION FUND (NJCNF)
The New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. NJCNF aims to increase the number of low-income children receiving meals through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Additionally, NJCNF seeks to facilitate the use of fresh, local and ethnically appropriate food whenever possible.