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Fast thinking and cooperation cooks up a lunch program for young pupils.

A catering snafu a week before the new school year threatened to leave children at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County without a hot lunch program.

So its head of school, Ruth Gafni, got on the phone – and set a unique community collaboration in motion.

As a result of some fast creative thinking, this year lunch at Schechter is provided by the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. Tuesday through Friday, heated trucks roll down to New Milford, bringing strictly kosher soup, salad bar fixings, and a main course prepared especially for the children.

“I reached out to our board member and my mentor Chuck Berkowitz, CEO of the Jewish Home Family,” Gafni said. By the next day, she was meeting with Berkowitz, the Jewish Home’s CEO, Sunni Herman, and its food services director, Lisa Segelbacher.

“We compared menus, spoke about the possibility of collaborating, the cost, and what may be needed for them to take over our meal plan,” Gafni said. “They mentioned working closely with a dietician, making the food kid-friendly. When we were about to leave, they assured me that they would make it work.”

“We were confident we could do it because we already send bulk meals to the Kaplen JCC [in Tenafly] for the senior programs and to the YJCC in Washington Township,” Herman said. “I felt passionately about it as a Jewish communal agency. Personally, as a working parent of three kids in a school where they get hot meals, I’m very sensitive to ensuring the kids get lunch. It’s very difficult to put together a nutritious lunch, and parents depend on the school to do that.”

The Home’s two fulltime dieticians worked with the existing menu, evaluating the nutritional value of the food with an eye toward common food allergies.

“We totally pulled it together,” Herman said. “For the first week, we served cold food because Schechter still had to purchase equipment to keep the hot food hot and the cold food cold. I was there the first day, and it was a real feel-good moment to know that two Jewish community agencies could work together so quickly.”

Gafni reported that the cuisine garnered delicious reviews from the start, with many children coming back for second helpings. “The parents who volunteered [to serve the food] were pleased, and we cannot thank Chuck, Sunni, and the staff enough,” she said.

“This is really out of the box in terms of a collaboration, but we’re really committed to its success,” Herman said, giving kudos to Executive Chef Dominic Akerman. “He took on this project as his own and made it work, despite needing to balance all the demands on the kitchen.”

On Mondays, the kids get pizza at Schechter because the Home’s staff cannot do the necessary ordering and prep work on Sunday.

Herman pointed out that the unusual arrangement helps assure that food will not go to waste. “We are always open, and if there is a storm or some other reason they couldn’t get the food to Schechter, we could store it on premises, using our emergency generator. During Hurricane Sandy, we had 30 people sleep over and we had to feed them, so no matter what happens the food won’t go to waste.”

Gafni and Herman stress that the relationship is two-sided. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from Schechter visit residents of the Jewish Home once a week to schmooze, play games, discuss current events, and work on joint art projects.

“It does take a village, and that’s what we try to teach the children and model every day here,” Gafni said. “For the fourth year in a row, every Wednesday a van comes from the Jewish Home and takes the children to interact with residents in a joyful, meaningful way. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect the elderly and the young.”

The school has a student population of 420, about two-thirds of whom are signed up to receive a hot lunch. “The children are happy with the food and now we are collecting suggestions of how to make it even more appealing – what dishes they would like to see for the next semester,” Gafni said. “It is definitely our intention for this arrangement to continue.

“The more collaboration, the better it is for everyone.”