“I don’t like Cocoa Puffs, it’s too much chocolate,” 10-year-old Zariah Mosley said as she shuffled to a gazebo at Steinmetz Park where she and her fellow day campers dug into breakfast. “I want cinnamon. Cinnamon cereal.”
As she walked back to the gazebo, her sisters – Mariah, Lalysha and Nikica – took their turns at the white truck parked on the side of the road, where Ron P. Harrichan and Brandon Williams, mobile drivers for the Schenectady Inner City Mission’s summer meals program, handed out free meals to anyone who showed up that morning earlier this month.
Zariah’s sisters waited patiently as the kids made a choice between Cocoa Puffs and Cinnamon Crunch cereals and white and chocolate milk. Everyone got a juice too. Lalysha, 11, followed behind her sister with a strawberry juice and a smile. “Because I like the strawberry,” she said.
Just moments after Harrichan had closed up the back of the truck, a minivan full of kids pulled up beside it. Back to the kitchen on wheels.
“Hey, how you doing?” Williams asked the kids after they piled out of the van and trickled over to the mobile unit. “Cocoa Puff or Cinnamon Toast Crunch?”
This time the last meals at the site were served, and Harrichan and Williams pulled off to the next site – down the street at Yates Village on the city’s Northside.
Each weekday morning from June 27 to Sept. 2, at around 8:15 a.m., Harrichan and Williams arrive at Mount Olivet Baptist Church where they load up Mobile Van 2 and head off to deliver cold breakfast — a choice of cereal, juice and chocolate or white milk — to five stops around town. Harrichan takes the driver seat as Williams grabs some cold waters and jumps into the passenger side of the truck; they pull out of the church parking lot and onto Park Street just before 8:30 a.m. and head off to deliver the program’s first meal of the day at the Steinmetz Park camp.
The mobile-breakfast program is new this summer, and organizers of the annual summer meals program are gauging whether to ramp it up to more sites next year. “We’re just starting and have had really good days and other days not so much,” said Dave Taylor, director of the SICM summer meals program. “We’ll see if it takes off.”
Williams has been volunteering with the program since his grandmother ran it when he was 14 or 15. Harrichan came into the SICM food pantry for a meal and started volunteering there earlier this year. After a few months, an organizer asked if he had a driver’s license, and he was hired to deliver meals this summer.
Harrichan always drives. He spent 15 years working as a driver in New York City, so nothing on Schenectady streets faze him. “I drive a school bus in the city, a truck in the city, so this is a piece of cake.”
At each stop, Harrichan hops out of the truck and lifts open the back gate, where Williams stands in the back of the truck matching milks and cereals to the kids’ orders. He hands the meal to Harrichan, who passes it on to the kids and on to the next one, ticking off the meal count on a chart as they go.
“It’s like serve, drive, serve, drive,” Harrichan said.
As they pulled into Yates Village, 9-year-old Jetziel Perez rode his bike down to the truck. While Jetziel said he usually sleeps in until noon during the summer, he woke up early that morning, and with a stir of hunger in his stomach peered out his widow and saw as the truck approached the stop.
“I just see it and I tell my aunt I’m gonna go eat,” 9-year-old Jetzeil Perez said. “I never get Cocoa Puffs at my house, that’s why I was quick here. I want Cocoa Puffs.”
But the day doesn’t start when Williams and Harrichan load up their mobile and head out for the first deliveries of the day. The day starts down the street in an office inside the cafeteria at Schenectady High School, where Wendy Lemperle arrives to work at about 4:30 a.m. Lemperle is Schenectady’s food service director with Whitsons Culinary Group, the vendor that provides food for city schools throughout the year as well as SICM’s summer meals program.
She settles in at her desk and checks her emails from the night before. The summer meals coordinators at SICM send a nightly order for the next day’s meals, broken down by site, and Lemperle assigns the meal totals to her three trucks. She also takes inventory and submits order for her own operation: how many hot dogs are needed? How many paper bags? Sandwich bags and loaves of bread?
“I like to check all my emails and get everything situated, that way I’m ready and clearheaded for these guys,” Lemperle said motioning to the drivers and cooks that maneuvered around her as she stood in the middle of the kitchen. “Sometimes it makes for a long day, especially with the heat.”
The kitchen’s eight industrial-size ovens, switched on as early as 5 a.m., will cook hundreds of chicken patties or slices of pizza or hot dogs, depending on the day, totaling nearly 2,000 meals. The Whitsons cooks will make and pack hundreds of deli sandwiches — their summer work also includes 1,300 daily summer school meals.
For SICM, the Whitsons trucks leave the high school loading dock by 10:30, and swing by the SICM kitchen at Mount Olivet to drop off meals for the mobile units — two for lunches — and pick up gloves, hair nets and other supplies before heading over to one of 26 fixed lunch sites scattered around town.
When those trucks arrive at Mount Olivet, the SICM team is in full summer meals mode. An assembly line of workers at a long table in the church basement kitchen packs hundreds of bag lunches.
Chenier Crumble stood on one end of the table and shook open one paper bag at a time, stuffing it with a spork and napkins and bag of carrots. Eric Chatham floated between helping Crumble with the carrots and napkins and stuffing chips and apple sauce before passing the bags down the table. Lisa Ouellette finished stuffing the bags with chips, all whole grain and oven baked, and apple sauce before she handed them to the final worker at the table, who rolled them closed, lined them in a box and tallied each bagged meal.
“When you have to make 900 meals, it’s easier to do an assembly line than with just one person,” said Olivia Cox, one of two program coordinators. The people on the assembly line are site coordinators at fixed lunch sites around town. Some of the fixed sites at churches are staffed and run by those congregations. “It’s a pretty efficient program we’ve got going down here.”
Outside, the mobile team — two pairs of driver and co-pilot — loaded up the bagged meals and cold drinks. They also wrapped hundreds of individual slices of pizza (Friday is pizza day) and readied their trucks for the busy lunchtime journey through Schenectady. After returning from the breakfast run by 10:45 a.m., Harrichan and Williams earned a short respite before hitting the road for lunch.
To make its first stop at Ellis Hospital at 11:15 a.m., however, Mobile 1, manned by Sherain Rivera and Sherod Goodman, must leave about 5 minutes before they are scheduled to appear at the stop. From then on, it’s a mad dash across town, hitting eight stops in two hours.
“How you doing?” Rivera asked the first girl in line at the stop in the parking lot of the Ellis McClellan campus. “Chocolate milk or white milk?”
“Chocolate . . .” the girl answered as she caught a glimpse of the main course and shouted a happy reply. “Peeeza!”
“Pizza,” Rivera confirmed. “They smile when pizza is here.” The pair served 18 meals total at the hospital before rolling to the next stop at Elmer Elementary School.
By the time they pulled to the side of Eastern Avenue at 11:40 a.m., a group of kids on the Elmer playground started to converge on the truck. Other kids appeared seemingly from nowhere, turning the corner at one end of the school building or making their way down the sidewalk from the other end. Within minutes, the line of kids waiting for lunch numbered in the dozens. The mobile unit can serve over 100 meals at a single stop. Rivera greets familiar faces, making sure the youngest kids get to the front of the line and making sure a brother or sister or cousin that may need a meal of their own isn’t sitting at home.
“Sometimes they just pop out of nowhere,” Rivera said. “We’re not gonna leave if we see kids.”
Across town at the community room at Yates Village, one of over two dozen fixed lunch sites was bustling with activity. Site coordinator Lina Ortiz showed off her domain like a proud mother.
“It’s about the children, they get so happy when they see you come in: ‘The lunch lady, the lunch lady,’ ” Ortiz said. “As a kid in New York City, I went to free lunch programs. I was the young girl that used to stand in line, and I admired the ladies who handed out the food.”
“It’s come full circle,” said Olivia Cox, the program coordinator, who was visiting the Yates site.
“I get excited, now I’m the one who stands behind the table,” Ortiz said.
In one corner of the community room, a pair of SICM interns read to kids and handed out donated books. At a table beside them, Kelsey Heck, a nutrition educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, engaged kids and parents in an activity that explored the different food groups. (Half of the plate should be fruits and vegetables, she said.)
Behind the table where the meals were handed out, volunteers from General Electric debated the difference between engineers and scientists, and high school students collected volunteers credits needed for the National Honor Society and International Baccalaureate classes. A Yates Elementary School teacher volunteered for the summer after noticing the pamphlets distributed to students at the school.
“It’s nice here, the people are nice here, it’s love,” said Jeanetta Carter, who lives at Yates and has been visiting the lunch site with her son for six summers. “They treat people with respect.”
The fixed sites are closed by 2:30 p.m., and the last mobile stop of the day finishes by 2:45 p.m. But for the core of paid staffers, the day is still not over. The mobiles return to the Mount Olivet home base, where leftovers are organized and stored for future use, count sheets are entered into the program database, mobile trucks are cleaned and coolers are scrubbed out
By the time they pack up for the day, about 13 hours after Lemperle, the Whitsons manager, started her day at the high school, over 1,900 meals will have been served at 47 locations around the city. On any given day, 80 volunteers join around 35 paid staff to pack, deliver and serve the meals to hundreds – sometimes as many as 2,000 – kids.
Back in the church office where Assistant Program Director Eileen Ploetz, Coordinator Anna Winters and Cox work, Ploetz pulled up a master spread sheet that keeps the tally for every meal served at every site throughout the summer. From this list every night, Ploetz, in her fifth summer, and Winters, in her fourth, study average meal counts and trends and shoot off an email order for each site to Lemperle. It’s the last task of the day and usually happens around 5 p.m. The email sits in Lemperle’s inbox until shortly after 4:30 the next morning.
“I always say I’m not going to come back, but I always do. There is just something about this program,” Ploetz said. “I would not be surprised if I’m sitting here again next year, but we’ll see what happens.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.