Filling bellies to fill minds

Free lunch eligibility increases in NE Michigan

News Photo by Julie Goldberg Alpena High School students eat lunch on Wednesday.

ALPENA — Not every student in Northeast Michigan is able to bring a lunch from home or buy lunch at school during the school year, and there’s a program in place to help those students and their families.

The free and reduced-price lunch program is for students whose families do not have the financial capabilities to send their children to school with a lunch or to buy lunch every day. Federal income eligibility guidelines, tied to the federal poverty level, are approved every year that determine whether or not a student qualifies. A student qualifies if the household income falls at or below the limits.

Diane Golzynski, director of health and nutrition services for the Michigan Department of Education, said the free and reduced-price lunch program has been around since 1946 to help hungry kids. She said every school has the program and every kid is able to participate if they meet the guidelines.

In Northeast Michigan, participants in the free-and-reduced program is common. Almost 52% of students in the area received a free lunch, while 8.5% received a reduced-price lunch in the 2018-19 school year. Free lunch numbers are up from the 2014-15 school, year when 45.4% of Northeast Michigan students were eligible for a free meal, while reduced-price lunch numbers are down, from 11.3% in 2014-15.

Overall, 45% of the 1.45 million students in Michigan qualified for free lunches in the 2018-19 school year, and 5% qualified for reduced-price lunches.

Sonya Thomas, executive director for United Way of Northeast Michigan, said poverty is higher in Northeast Michigan because of the lack of well-paying jobs. She said some jobs in the area barely pay minimum wage, so some people have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“In a larger city, there are manufacturing jobs that pay more and there are more opportunities, so poverty is lower,” Thomas said.

BENEFITS

The free-and-reduced lunch program helps keep students fed throughout the school day.

Jeff Powers, food service director for Hillman Community Schools, said free-and-reduced lunches help families because they don’t have to worry about paying the full price for lunch.

“If they aren’t making much or are receiving state aid, then they don’t have to worry about paying for their meals, or they pay very little,” Powers said.

Carl Seiter, superintendent of Hillman schools and Atlanta Community Schools, said students can’t focus if they’re hungry. He said the program works to ensure students are taken care of nutritionally and ready to learn.

“We need to always provide nutritional food to help students in their academics,” Posen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Michelle Wesner said. “Brains are able to function and it’s an exceptional program.”

Alcona Community Schools Food Service Director Nick Cordes said the program takes a financial burden off of Northeast Michigan families.

BREAKFAST OPTIONS

Not only are students able to receive free-and-reduced lunches, they’re also able to receive breakfast before they start their school day. Local administrators say breakfast helps students have enough energy for them to stay focused throughout the day.

“It’s huge for kids to focus on academics,” Wesner said. “It provides fruits and vegetables that may not ever be at home.”

Rod Fullerton, superintendent of Onaway Area Community Schools, said Onaway offers every student the opportunity to eat breakfast every day.

“It’s very impactful for the kids who ride the bus to school,” Fullerton said.

Alcona’s breakfast program is similar to its lunch program, in which it’s free for students in the free lunch program and reduced for students in the reduced lunch program, Cordes said.

“The learning environment is best when students have a nutritious and balanced breakfast,” Nic Wiser, food service director for Alpena Public Schools, said. “It’s very important for them to have that so they’re nourished and can concentrate during the school day.”

BACKPACK PROGRAMS

Besides offering students breakfast and lunch, some school districts also offer a backpack program that lets students to take food home over the weekend so they are still fed while they’re not at school.

Powers said the Hillman Lions Club sends food home to needy families for the weekend and any additional breaks during the course of the school year.

Onaway sends food home with 48 of its students every weekend through their Backpack Program, Fullerton said. He said students still need food over the weekend and the program provides them with that food.

Alcona Schools also provides a backpack program for its students and Superintendent Dan O’Connor said that’s a need that’s taken for granted locally by the public.

Rogers City Area Schools has a backpack program run through the Rogers City Optimist Club, food service director Victoria Paull said.

WHAT DO SUPERINTENDENTS THINK?

Local superintendents understand the importance of free-and-reduced lunches for students. Seiter said it’s a tremendous benefit to students and families, and when families are on a tight budget, the program provides them with support and help.

“I see it helping families make ends meet, they don’t have to worry about those students getting a hot lunch or where the money is going to come from to pay for it,” Seiter said. “It also benefits the district because a lot of our state funding is determined by the percentage of free-and-reduced price lunches in the district.”

Alcona’s O’Connor said students won’t be in a good position to learn if they don’t have their basic needs taken care of and food is one of those.

“Students struggle more often than we think, especially when they don’t have those one or two meals they can count on each day,” O’Connor said.

Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or jgoldberg@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.

Coming Monday

Summer food programs lacking in Northeast Michigan.

Breakout Box

Free and reduced lunches

A look at free and reduced lunch percentages for each Northeast Michigan school district for the 2018-19 school year.

District Free Reduced Total enrollment

Alcona 60.5% 7.1% 686

Alpena 49.2% 8.9% 3,753

Atlanta 56.5% 9.2% 239

Hillman 54.3% 13.1% 411

Onaway 52.8% 4% 604

Posen 47.9% 11.7% 213

Rogers City 48.3% 8.1% 528

Source: Michigan Department of Education