Most Oceana schools offer free lunch.

August 20, 2019

The Hart High School cafeteria.

Most Oceana schools offer free lunch.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

As Oceana County students head back to school after summer break, all of them will get to have a free breakfast and most can enjoy a free lunch every day.

Just about all public schools in Oceana County offer free lunch and breakfast through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program.

Eligibility is based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch, said Hart Public Schools Superintendent Mark Platt whose district qualified this school year in all buildings. Two years ago, the program began in the middle school and elementary buildings. This year, the entire district qualifies for the program, Platt said.

“It’s a nice thing to be able to offer our families,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity that we’re very excited about.”

Hesperia Community Schools qualified for the program last year, and this year it is also participating, said Business Manager Pat Budde. Walkerville Public Schools is in its fifth year of the program, said Business Manager Sandy Oomen, with the 2015-16 school year being the first year.

Data is reviewed on a yearly basis to determine a school district’s eligibility, said Platt.

Shelby Public Schools is in its fifth year of offering free meals to all students through the program, said Food Service Director Mary Rose Vanas. Shelby offers several other programs aimed at helping families, Vanas said. Free dinner is also offered after school at Shelby through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The free suppers are often utilized by students involved in after-school activities or kids who walk to and from school, she said.

Students eat lunch in the Hart High School cafeteria.

The school also has programs to ensure students are assisted during times of need by helping families whose electricity has been shut off or has no food, Vanas said. Through the school counselors, families are anonymously assisted with weekend meals.

In addition to making sure kids are fed, Shelby also ensures students have the appropriate school supplies through a free backpack program. A private sponsor donates $5,000 each year to give kids backpacks with school supplies, Vanas said.

Food service numbers are growing in school districts. “We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of meals served,” said Platt. Vanas said that is also case at Shelby. “We had 70 when we started at New Era Elementary in 2012,” she said. Now, the number of meals served is 160. Middle school numbers have grown from 60 to 250, she said.

Pentwater Public Schools is the only district in Oceana County that does not qualify for the program having just narrowly missed the qualifying percentage, which was less than 50 percent, said Superintendent Scott Karaptian. However, the school district is participating in a pilot program that offers free breakfasts to students during the first two months of the school year – September and October.

“Universal Free Breakfast reduces the stigma attached to eating breakfast at school,” states a letter sent to families in the Pentwater district. “It makes breakfast available to those students who may not want to participate in the program for fear of being labeled ‘poor.’ It also provides breakfast for those students who cannot afford the cost of a reduced price breakfast and lunch. In addition, children who participate in Universal Free Breakfast tend to have improved attendance, less tardiness and increased test scores. The quality of their diets also improves.

“If the program provides to be a viable and successful one, we will continue the program for the rest of the school year.”

Vanas agrees that “free for all” food programs reduce the stigma of being from a low-income family. “It takes away the stigma of only poor people eating,” she said.

Lunches in most districts are approximately $3, and breakfasts cost around $2.

“No child should be excluded from food,” Vanas said. “We want every child to have an equal start. It’s harder to teach a child who is not fed.”

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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