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Nourishing help: Schools help food-insecure students

April 17, 2019

SOMERSWORTH, N.H. (AP) — As social issues have evolved in the community, so too have the roles schools play in supporting their families.

On the Seacoast, one place that evolution has manifested is in school nutrition. From so-called food rescue programs to providing free breakfasts and dinners to students regardless of financial situation, more and more districts are moving beyond traditional school responsibilities in their efforts to combat food insecurity and foster educational success.

“The kids are starting earlier, they’re staying later, they’ve got sports and parents who work until late or second or third shift,” said Maureen Jackman, Somersworth Middle School’s director of student services, about some of the challenges that extend beyond complex issues like poverty and homelessness. “They’re hungry. We know food insecurity is a real issue. The academics don’t matter if they’re worried about food, clothing or where their home is going to be.”

Area districts have long collaborated with outside food assistance organizations, including End 68 Hours of Hunger, Gather and Grab and Go, to minimize the number of students who go hungry outside of school hours. It’s also common for districts to use federal grants to stock their nurse and guidance offices with free snacks for students, to provide food during after-school programs, and to offer breakfasts for students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Those things have become the norm, and school officials throughout the area say they’re fortunate to have them. But at the same time, a number of those officials say it isn’t enough.

“I just can’t stress enough that students can’t work on an empty stomach,” said Matt Ferreira, business administrator for School Administrative Unit 21, the district that covers North Hampton, Hampton Falls, Seabrook, and Hampton’s Winnacunnet High School. “Unfortunately, in our country and in our immediate vicinity, there are kids in that situation.”

That’s why Somersworth, Rochester and Kittery, Maine, schools redistribute uneaten food that would normally get thrown away, particularly the produce that free and reduced lunch students must take with their meals. This practice is known as a food rescue.

The way it works is the schools place bowls, tables or coolers in their lunchrooms. Students then voluntarily use them to “share” items like apples, cartons of milk and bags of carrots with other students. It allows any student to discreetly come up to take items they might need to get through the school day - or, frequently, to fill their bags to ensure they have enough to eat at home later. The programs are widely used, based on firsthand observations and staff anecdotes.

“As soon as we put the food out, it just goes,” Lynn Allen, principal of Rochester’s William Allen Elementary School, said as students quickly emptied and refilled the bowl inside her school’s lunchroom last week.

For the past few years, Rochester has also been offering a free breakfast at all eight of its elementary schools. The district is one of several in the area that has schools in which 40 to 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and it found a $30,000 budget expenditure could extend that early-morning meal to everyone to better support all students and prepare them for learning, according to Superintendent Mike Hopkins.

“It’s so important and it really does help kids who are on that edge of being able to afford that meal,” said Hopkins, whose district also offers a student-run food pantry at Spaulding High School known as Raider Station.

Somersworth and Seabrook are among the communities who serve dinner to their students after school.

Seabrook’s dinners are 100 percent federally funded in conjunction with their after-school programs, according to Ferreira. Somersworth’s meanwhile are thanks to a combination of local district funding and various grants coordinated by its Somersworth Youth Connection program.

Somersworth refers to its year-round program as a “snack dinner,” which can feed more than 200 elementary and middle school students on any given day. According to Jackman, SYC’s director, it’s intended to provide students with healthy meal options in the mid-afternoon to tide them over until they eat with their working parents later in the evening.

However, Jackman said she’s aware there are students who use the snack dinner as their actual dinner, and the program has also permitted parents to eat so long as they come in and eat with their children.

“This is huge for me. This is a very important program,” Jackman said. “I’m passionate about these kids and this community. I’m a firm believer of we need to take care of each other.”

Somersworth is designated as a “food desert” because it lacks affordable, locally grown produce, Jackman said. It’s why the snack dinners and SYC’s programs include various enrichments and educational components, such as hands-on kitchen lessons in which University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension introduces children to new foods and teaches them how to cook and prepare healthy recipes.

Somersworth is among the districts that have hosted free, no-questions-asked farmers market events through partnerships with local farmers. Most local districts also offer some form of greenhouse, garden or farm-to-school program that teaches students how to grow their own food while at the same time infusing lunch menus with what they reap

“It’s not just about accessing food, it’s about nutrition and healthy foods and building those sustainable practices,” said Portsmouth Superintendent of Schools Steve Zadravec. “Farm-to-school is really where we’re trying to bring awareness and those resources.”

Jess Paul, a Somersworth native and mother, said she’s seen these various school supports make an impact greater than just easing her family of six’s finances. She said she’s seen them strengthen neighborhoods citywide, and far beyond anything she saw growing up in the community.

“I’ve seen it grow so much more as a community and caring place,” said Paul, whose children range from 2 to 10 years old and participate in SYC’s programming. “It’s definitely changed more toward the family aspect of it.”

Other ways in which Seacoast districts combat food insecurity is by collecting community donations and placing them in a fund that guidance staff and social workers can use to purchase grocery gift cards and other things for students on a case-by-case basis.

Those funds are often different than the money residents donate to pay off unpaid school lunch balances each year, and they’re slightly different from the “opportunity fund” Portsmouth uses to cover all course, sport and school field trip fees for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“This is the first year we’ve had it in full,” Zadravec said of Portsmouth’s fund, which operates off of $20,000 in district appropriations and $10,000 in private donations. “We hope to build and sustain it.”

These various initiatives speak nothing to the ways the districts have fought to overcome the stigmas that some people attach to free and reduced lunch and other assistance.

School officials said they’re always looking for ways to make students feel more comfortable and anonymous while seeking help, which is why many lunch lines use a standardized, student ID-based payment system so every transaction looks the same at the register.

The hope, according to Zadravec, is that it will make more students and parents feel comfortable asking for help if they need it. That’s important, Hopkins said, because there are a number of middle and high school students across the region who would qualify for free and reduced lunch, but never turn in their paperwork. It’s something Hopkins said his district is looking to turn around to help pull itself out of a projected $173,500 lunch program deficit that’s been caused by fewer students buying full-priced meals, increased staff benefit costs and increased kitchen maintenance costs.

Kittery, Maine, Nutrition Program Director Wendy Collins said if there’s one message she wants to convey to the community, it’s that there should be no shame or embarrassment in seeking help. She said it’s a common barrier she encounters, and one that popped up to a greater degree when local U.S. Coast Guard members went without pay during last winter’s government shutdown.

Collins said she also hears families tell her they don’t want to sign up for free and reduced lunch because they worry it could prevent another family from receiving help. That’s not the case, according to Collins.

“It doesn’t matter if 20 percent of your school or 100 percent of your school gets those benefits, it doesn’t hinder anyone else from getting those benefits,” she said, referring the fact the federal government fully reimburses every meal served to someone who qualifies for free and reduced lunch. “I would encourage anyone who would even question if they qualify for those benefits to apply.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2GtvDP3

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Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com

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