Despite remote learning, school still tackle student hunger

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Capital News Service

LANSING – The coronavirus pandemic has forced many schools to close, but that hasn’t stopped the delivery of school breakfasts and lunches. 

Last year, meals were delivered to 900,000 Michigan students.

Free meals can be obtained when children are attending school or can be picked up at a meal distribution site, which varies by community and their school districts. 

“Right now, all children age 18 and younger can receive free meals, no matter where they attend school,” said Stephanie Willingham, the assistant director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services in the Department of Education. 

“In a traditional school year, any child that goes to a school that participated in the National School Lunch Program would have the same eligibility,” she said.

According to Willingham, charter and private schools don’t have to participate in the National School Lunch Program, while public schools in Michigan, by law, must participate in the National School Lunch Program.

“Most schools have elected to participate, and there are nonschool sponsors providing meals to the kids. The U.S Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service granted many waivers and flexibilities to allow this to happen. The waivers expire on June 30, 2021,” she said.

The federal child nutrition programs, which include the summer food service program, the child and adult care food program and the national school lunch and school breakfast programs are funded by Washington, she said.

Normally, schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-price meals only if their household incomes are low enough. The change eliminates the income limitations required to receive a reduction.

In normal times, families apply through their school districts. Schools send school meal applications home at the beginning of each school year. The application determines eligibility based on factors such as household size and income or participation in approved assistance programs.

Willingham said that during the regular school year, most children receive meals Monday through Friday. Some receive weekend backpacks, but with the waivers in place, more children can obtain meals seven days per week.

Sponsors such as food banks and community action groups are also helping to fill the gaps, she said.

Traditionally, it’s the schools’ food service departments that provide meals. However, with the help of supporters, this allows for fewer children to miss out on meals.

Furthermore, she said there is a program called Pandemic-EBT available that allows students— who do not have access to free or reduced-price meals— to still receive them.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, “Pandemic-EBT provides food assistance to students who have lost access to free or reduced-price meals due to COVID-19. The goal of the program is to make sure no child goes hungry by missing out on school meals.” 

All meals must follow nutritional guidelines required by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S Department of Agriculture.

Breakfast must supply three of the four food components: milk, vegetables and fruits and grains/bread. A meat or meat alternate is optional

Lunch or supper must provide all four components. 

Lastly, a snack must provide any two of the four components. However, these components can be personally selected.  

While schools strive to reach and feed as many children as possible, there are some obstacles. 

Willingham said, some food bank and community action sponsors and districts are delivering meals, for example by using bus routes. And some sponsors have mobile routes where a delivery vehicle stops at different places and stays for 10-20 minutes to drop off meals. 

“There is always a chance that children are falling through the cracks,” Willingham said. “There are transportation barriers, timing of when meals are being served and issues with reaching rural areas.”

Reo Elementary School, in Lansing, is one site where children pick up and receive free meals. 

The school is an official Meet Up and Eat Up site and a Weekend Survival Kit food distribution site, said Jekeia Murphy, the principal.

According to Murphy, food restrictions— due to food allergies— and transportation are huge barriers for children to access meals.  

Many children have dairy, wheat and peanut allergies and can’t eat the available free meals.  

Murphy said she believes that there should be a pickup location dedicated to children with food allergies. 

“We should try to address it even if it’s one site,” she said. “We should acknowledge it in some kind of way. Dairy and wheat are nearly in everything.” 

Additionally, transportation problems mean some parents don’t have a vehicle to pick up meals. 

In addition, many working parents have trouble accessing the free meals because pickup times conflict with their working schedule and their child’s learning times, she said.