Hickman Mills School District now provides children of many struggling families three square meals a day
By Mary Kay Morrow
Photos by Sally Morrow Gomez
Kindergartener Mya Townsend crunched into a chicken nugget while wedged between chattery friends on a bench in the sun-filled cafeteria at Burke Elementary School on Monday evening, March 29. The kids were munching away on dinners of chicken, corn, sliced kiwi, bread and milk.
Mya is one of nearly 700 Hickman Mills C-1 elementary kids now eating dinner at school before heading home.
For Mya’s mom, Angela Hunter, the district’s new dinner program is a time-saver.
A Security Guard at Ward Parkway Shopping Center, Hunter said her daughter used to be hungry right away when they got home in the evening.
“Now, I have more time,” Hunter said. “We’re able to read, relax, and I don’t have to worry about dinner until later.”
Since January of this year, thousands of dinners have been served to Hickman Mills’ kids. That means the school district is now feeding many of its students three square meals every school day – breakfast, lunch and dinner – as well as partnering with the community to send healthy snacks home on Fridays to help kids throughout the weekend.
“We’re looking at the holistic well-being of our children. You do what you have to do,” said Hickman Mills School Board President Bonnaye Mims. “Our responsibility is beyond math, reading and writing. And the need is getting bigger. We’re sociologists, social workers, doctors, food pantry, and grocery store.”
Dinner was first served at school in January to approximately 700 of the 3,200 students in Hickman Mills’ eight elementary schools. Students in the Local Investment Commission (LINC) after school program are eligible to eat the free, healthy dinners every school day.
“The first month we served 10,000 meals - with a week of snow days,” said Hickman Mills’ Director of Nutrition Services Leah Schmidt. “There were 12,000 dinners in February and 12,500 in March, with spring break.”
Schmidt sees the need first hand.
“There may be a child who may not have a meal at all until the next morning unless we provide it,” she said.
The program is possible due to a federally-funded initiative by the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program. It is currently available in only 13 states and in areas where 50%
or more of the children are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.
Jim Morris, with the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE), explained that the Supper Program reimburses the school district a total of $2.875 per meal served. For the 10,000 dinners served in January, Hickman was reimbursed $26,000.
The dinners are a blessing for many families in the Hickman Mills School District, where 78% qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, a program which began in the 1960s through the federal government. Most feedback from families is positive.
“Parents say they have more time for homework and spending time with their families,” said LINC Food Service Manager Wendy Ramirez. “Just one parent declined the dinners. She wanted her kids to go home and have dinner together.”
For single mother-of-three Keona Williams, the school-provided dinners allow her time to give her children—fourth-grader Javontae Brock and second-grader Kiance Brock—her full attention with their homework.
“Before I had to cook at the same time as trying to help them,” Williams said.
“Now, mom can take time off from cooking and help me with my homework, especially math,” Javonte said.
A Certified Nurses Assistant at Jefferson Health Care, Williams usually gets off work about 5pm and is relieved that she no longer has to stop at the store and do dishes on school nights along with homework, baths, ironing, combing her daughter’s hair, and reading with the kids—all before 9pm.
“The best thing is not having to cram everything into four hours,” said Williams, who usually just grabs cereal or a sandwich for herself after the kids are in bed.
Last year, Missouri schools served an average of 606,476 lunches and 223,071 breakfasts each school day as part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program administered in Missouri by the Department of Education. Some 44% were served free, and about 10% were served at reduced price.
Those numbers are projected to increase over the next three years – primarily because of the nation’s economic slump.
DESE’s Jim Morris explained that because of the slump, the federal government is boosting funding for some programs due to increased needs among children and families.
“We expect to receive about $39 million in additional aid for the school lunch program during the next year to cover the rising numbers of children eligible for free- or reduced-cost meals.”
Morris doesn’t see this as a shift in the school districts’ role, beyond reading and writing.
“Rather, it is the continuation of a trend,” said Morris. “School lunch and breakfast programs have become accepted parts of school operations over the last half-century. Today, however, we are seeing a significant surge in the number of families that need subsidized meals for their children.”
Morris said schools are trying to do what they can to assist struggling families and to meet the nutritional needs of children.
Last month in Hickman Mills, the district budget was amended to include cuts to various programs and funds. The only program to receive increased funding was the Food Supper Program through the Department of Health and Senior Services. The Supper Program increased by $175,000.
“Many of our families are struggling financially and providing a nutritious meal after school helps them stretch limited funds,” said Gayle Wood, the district’s LINC liaison.
Burke Elementary Principal Casey D. Klapmeyer agrees.
“This program could not have come at a better time for our students and community. We were fortunate to get this program at such a crucial time for our families. So many are struggling financially and getting this assistance has been a blessing to them.”
Klapmeyer thinks families without students in the district don’t always understand the support, besides teaching, schools try to offer families.
“Many of our parents are working two or more jobs right now to make ends meet and have unusual hours, so the dinner program takes the stress out of coming home late and having to pull together a dinner for their child. Knowing a meal is going to be available each day allows our kids to focus on what’s important...learning.”
Now in its second year, Hickman’s “Back Snack Club” is one more way district personnel, with help from the community, are doing what they can for kids.
“When we started back snacks, we found out a lot of kids were going home to nothing,” said Mims.
With support from local churches and food pantries, the district fills back packs (provided by Harvesters Community Food Network) with nutritious snacks. The packs are sent home with children after school on Friday so that they have food to eat over the weekend.
Hickman Mills Community Christian Church Volunteer JoAnne Karaff explained that people bring in donations throughout the year for the program. The money is not only used for food but for other things such as uniforms and school supplies as well.
“Our church has pretty much gone through the money we have,” Karaff said, indicating the need for donations.
Karaff explained that kids qualify for the program on a need basis based on income, as well as through teacher and counselor recommendations.
HM Director of Nutrition Services Leah Schmidt explained the process.
“Churches adopt schools, pick up food that is delivered by Harvesters to our warehouse, and pack it into back packs for the kids to pick up on Fridays before getting on the buses,” said Schmidt. “After the kids return the packs on Mondays, the churches clean them out before re-filling them for the next week.”
Schmidt said the Community Assistance Council (CAC) is a key player in making the Back Snack Club happen.
Every Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 pm, volunteers from Hickman Mills Community Christian Church pack food bundles donated by Harvesters at CAC, located at 10901 Blue Ridge Boulevard.
Specific snacks are selected in order to be easy for kids to prepare themselves, such as microwavable meals, pudding cups and juice boxes.
“The snacks are different each week,” Schmidt said. Last week’s pack included Vegetable Soup, Saltines, Granola Bars, Bean & Franks, Milk, Juice Boxes, Cereal, Pudding, and Canned Peaches.
Schmidt said she feels good seeing kids get healthy snacks. She’s seen kids come to school hungry.
“We see it on Monday morning. Some of the kids are so hungry,” she said. “This is just one more thing we can do to help families out.”