Battling hunger on the home front

Combatting an often unseen problem, Port school launches programs to send food home with students who don’t have enough to eat on weekends, provide breakfast snacks

DISPLAYING SOME OF THE FOOD and backpacks that will be sent home with students who don’t get enough to eat over the weekends were members of Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s Student Ambassador Program (from left) Carlie Snodgrass, Sophia Goetz, Jacari Mathews, Dashiell Reinders, Jenna Korten, Clare Ritter, Talula Leverson and Victoria Del Angel Cano. The students are helping collect nonperishable food for that initiative as well as a once-a week breakfast program. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

The harsh reality is that school lunch is the only meal of the day for some students. On weekends, they go hungry.

That’s what a school counselor and a food pantry director said not about students in a large urban school system but those in the Port Washington-Saukville School District.

“We have several students who say they don’t have dinners or get enough food to eat over the weekends,” Suzy Michel, a counselor at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington, said. 

So to feed its students who don’t have food at home, the school has launched two programs, and it’s asking for help from the community in the form of food donations. 

The school calls one of those initiatives BackPack Fridays. At the end of the week, a backpack stuffed with nonperishable food  — things like macaroni and cheese, tuna, pasta, granola bars and cereal — will be sent home with students whose parents register for the program to tide the children in the household over until the beginning of classes the next week.

The program is designed to be “discreet and confidential” so students who benefit from the effort aren’t subjected to the stigma of being poor, Michel said. 

The other program, Breakfast Grab-And-Go, gives students who don’t have enough food at home a chance to swing by the counseling office before classes once a week to grab a quick bite to eat. 

Thomas Jefferson Middle School, which along with Port High is one of the two largest schools in the district, has no other breakfast program.

“We’re the only school in the district without some type of breakfast program, which is kind of sad,” Michel said. 

The hope is to collect enough food to expand both programs, which are overseen by Michel, her fellow counselor Jennifer Meerdink and school psychologist Lori Bruno, and are organized with help from students involved in the school’s Student Ambassador Program.

Sharing that hope is Mark Gierach, executive director of the Saukville Community Food Pantry, who said he has long realized the need for such a program and whose organization is contributing food to the cause.

“We jumped at the chance to be part of this program because we know that kids not having enough to eat at home is a real problem,” he said. 

The middle school’s programs, a lot like those offered by the food pantry, shed light on a fact that often goes unnoticed in the comfortable communities of Ozaukee County, Gierach said.

“It’s a difficult reality that we live in a very wealthy county where some people aren’t wealthy at all,” he said. “The fact is, there are people in this county who don’t have enough to eat.”

Many of those people are school-age children, he said. 

“You talk to teachers and they’ll tell you that they have students come to school in the morning looking for something to eat, especially on Monday mornings,” he said. “They’re sleepy and have a hard time concentrating because they’re hungry.”

Gierach said that’s not the only evidence of need in Ozaukee County. 

Last month, the Saukville Community Food Pantry distributed free school supplies to more than 240 children from families that could not afford them, he said. 

Gierach said the number of students who receive reduced-price or free school lunches because of their parents’ income is also telling.

With more than a quarter — 27.1% — of its 2,400 students receiving reduced-price or free lunches, the Port Washington-Saukville School District has a higher percentage of students receiving benefits from the national meal program than any other district in Ozaukee County, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data from 2018.

And administrators believe there are students who qualify for subsidized lunches but don’t participate in the program.

“I think the numbers are on the low side,” Director of Business Services Jim Froemming said. “I think there are some students who even though they qualify don’t participate because of the perceived stigma.” 

The Northern Ozaukee School District in Fredonia is close to Port-Saukville with 26.9% of its students enrolled in the programs, but on the other end of the spectrum is the Cedarburg School District, which has just 8.6% of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches, the lowest in the county.

The numbers, Gierach said, are just another illustration of an overlooked truth.

“Just because some people don’t see poverty here, they think it doesn’t exist, but it does,” he said.

People who want to donate to Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s BackPack Fridays or Breakfast Gram-And-Go programs may drop off nonperishable food or monetary donations in the school office at 1403 N. Holden St.

“We’re looking for simple things that kids can make for themselves, like microwaveable mac and cheese or breakfast bars,” Gierach said. 

For more information, contact Michel at sue.michel@pwssd.k12.wi.us or 268-6128.

“If we can’t give kids the nourishment they need to succeed, what does that say for the future of our society?” Gierach asked. 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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