District takes on Nikiski breakfast program

Community passes baton after 9 years of nourishing elementary school students

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008

For nine years, Nikiski Community Services has been serving breakfast to the children and Nikiski North Star Elementary School and, starting Monday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) is taking over the job.

The program was started in 1998 by Pastor John Henry, formerly of North Star United Methodist Church, and Pastor Denver Copeland, of Lighthouse Community Church, because of a need that they saw in the community. According to Pastor Laura Skiba, the current pastor at North Star United Methodist, more than half of the children at North Star Elementary are on the free or reduced lunch program.

"That's the number of children living in poverty," Skiba said. "The kids would come to school without breakfast and they weren't as attentive."

Anywhere from four to nine volunteers served cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, juice and fruit to students every morning. Volunteers spent about and hour and a half at the school, including set-up and take-down.

At the time of the program's introduction, there were two elementary schools in Nikiski, North Star Elementary and Nikiski Elementary. In 2004, they were consolidated to be Nikiski North Star Elementary.

Initially, the program was funded by Nikiski Community Services, a community service-oriented organization made up of six Nikiski-area churches, and Henry and Copeland did the all of the shopping. In 2002, the Boys and Girls Club got involved and applied for a grant with the Boys and Girls Club to last five years. This year was the fifth year of the grant.

Skiba, who moved to Nikiski and began at North Star in 2004, was approached by the school district last year about taking over the program, but she decided to hold out until the grant was over. Supplies got more expensive and more and more children were participating in the program, between 70 and 100 in the 15-minute period between the time that the bus dropped them off and when school started, and it became apparent that the program may not have enough money to last the entire school year.

"The Boys and Girls Club contacted me and said that we were on track to outspend our money," Skiba said.

They decided to let KPBSD take over during winter break because it seemed like a logical stopping point.

Although all of the churches in the Nikiski community service have been involved with the program either directly or indirectly, North Star and Lighthouse have been the main suppliers of volunteers. This year, Lighthouse members served two mornings per week and North Star volunteers served on the other three. Nick and Veta Sacaloff are two North Star members who have been involved with the program since the beginning.

"Nick rarely missed a morning and he made all the sandwiches," Skiba said. "The kids had a really great report with Nick and Veta."

Veta was in charge of counting the kids as they came in and Skiba said that many kids would get their breakfast and go sit by Veta rather than with the rest of the group.

"Nick and Veta were just special," she said. "They just really loved the kids."

Since the new program will be federally and state funded, it will take on a few changes. One key aspect of the former program was that it provided free breakfast to any student; the new program will have stricter rules based on financial need.

According to Dean Hamburg, student nutrition services administrator for KPBSD, students who qualify for free lunches will also qualify for free breakfast and students qualifying for reduced priced lunches, will be asked to pay $.30 for breakfast. Students at full pay status will be asked to pay $1.50.

"The biggest concern is for the kids whose parents can afford to feed them but for one reason or another don't pay attention," Skiba said. "Those kids will fall through the cracks."

To make sure that this doesn't happen, the Boys and Girls club is giving snacks to teachers to distribute to students as they see a need.

Skiba said she has mixed feelings about the end of the churches' involvement in the breakfast program.

"It's like a bitter sweet thing," she said. "It feels really good to pass the baton. The school district and federal government are seeing that it's important for students to eat breakfast to stay attentive and learn at school. It's a good thing that the program is recognized as something necessary. It's neat that the pastors started this and that the schools feel the need to continue the program, but there's also a sadness with it."

With the addition of Nikiski North Star, KPBSD is serving as a sponsor for 14 USDA National School Breakfast Program serving sites in KPBSD schools, Hamburg said. KPBSD Student Nutrtion Services Staff currently provide over 120,000 school breakfasts each year. These meal provision services are in addition to the 28 National School Lunch Program sites that provide over 890,000 lunches each school year.

Hannahlee Allers can be reached at hannahlee.allers@peninsulaclarion.com.

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