LAWRENCE (Mercer) — In the summer months, as Gourmet Dining prepared to become the new food service provider at Rider University this fall, the company made it a priority to offer to cover costs for the school's partnership with Meals on Wheels of Mercer County.

Rider students, faculty, and staff all now play integral roles in assembling, packaging, and delivering more than 1,600 meals every week to county residents.

"It took a lot of people out of their comfort zones, but we saw the need, we want to be part of the community, and it's a great opportunity for our students to get part of their engaged learning hours and community service," Mike Reca, Rider vice president of facilities and university operations, said.

Gourmet Dining agreed to be part of the Meals on Wheels operation on the condition they got to do it their way, utilizing their full-time, on-campus registered dietitian to oversee the creation of safer and more health-conscious menus, including gluten-free and vegan options.

Plus, the new partnership puts a sharper focus on protecting against food allergies.

Reca said the response from around Mercer County has been more positive than Rider could have expected, with residents not only reporting back that the food is of higher quality than before, but that they are also glad the school is immersing itself in the community — and providing more consistent service.

When the Rider students found out they could satisfy some community service hours on campus, they filled up the volunteering calendar very fast, according to Reca, including over school breaks when meals are still sorely needed.

In the first week of meal preparation in October, there was some wariness about the new way of doing things, but Reca credits the wrestling team with leading by example, spurring other student groups to mobilize and sign up.

Meals are put together for distribution between 8:30 and 11 a.m. every Monday through Friday, and Reca hopes the arrangement will continue indefinitely.

"Our agreement is for several years, but I don't see any way, shape, or form where we're going to stop doing this," he said. "It's something that, quickly, in less than a month's time, has already woven into the fabric of the institution."