'This really happens': School lunch program copes with student hunger

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011

Patty Sirois has heard so many reasons why some Kenai Peninsula families can't feed their children. She fields their frantic phone calls regularly.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Sam McElrea, left, tries to convince younger students at Redoubt Elementary School to have some beans while helping serve lunch Wednesday afternoon. Legislators are looking at a bill that would help fund free and reduced lunches around the state.

"You can hear the desperation in their voice," said the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's student nutrition services assistant. "They don't have any money to give their child to eat."

Dean Hamburg, the district's student nutrition services administrator, said they call the phone calls the "8:30 confessions," when parents ask the district to provide help to feed their children that same day.

"I've had these fathers -- you can sense their dignity on the line," Hamburg said. "It's OK, that's why we're here."

According to Hamburg, 46 percent of students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District qualify for the free and reduced school meal program. Alaska's average is 42 percent. In the nation, 51 percent of students qualify for school meal assistance. Eighteen schools in the district are considered in a severe need hunger status area. And 194 students qualify as homeless.

"In Kenai things are not well," Hamburg said.

Things are not well in the state as a whole, either.

Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that because of the high prevalence of poverty in Alaska, the state is now in the running for a pilot program that makes it easier for low-income families to participate in the national school meal programs.

"Alaska is classified as high poverty state along with Louisianan and Oklahoma," Hamburg said. "A population with extraordinarily high poverty. That's what we are now as a statewide Alaskan family."

Hamburg said there's an extraordinary need for the school lunch programs within the state. That's why he's eager to see Senate Bill 3 passed before the end of the legislative session on Sunday.

The bill, which is currently sitting in the House finance committee, would put some onus on the state to fund districts per free and reduced meal -- 35 cents for each free and reduced breakfast and 15 cents for each free and reduced lunch.

Hamburg said he anticipates the bill might be pushed back until the next session.

"But I'm hopeful that at the last hour there will be some compassion," he said.

At Soldotna's Redoubt Elementary School Wednesday, students shuffled into the cafeteria to get their school lunches. It was double-rolled multi-grain pizza day, with a choice of sides: green beans, goldfish crackers, applesauce, and milk or juice.

The students, in their break-up boots and winter hats, went through the hot lunch line with their little red trays, picking out their food from the kitchen.

Of the 365 students enrolled at the elementary school, 177 qualify for free and reduced meals.

"That's similar to other Kenai Peninsula schools of this size," Hamburg said.

At elementary schools in the district lunch costs $2.75. At the high schools it's $3.25. Breakfast is $1.75.

"The kids who pay $3 for a lunch, it's not like they don't need help," Hamburg said. "Those in the paid category struggle too."

Students who qualify for reduced meals pay 40 cents for lunch and get breakfast for free.

"Four dimes doesn't happen in a lot of families," he said.

A family of four qualifies for free meals for its school children if its yearly income is less than $35,841. For reduced price meals, the same sized family can make no more than $51,005.

Through the National School Lunch Program, which subsidizes students' food, the district is required to provide nutritionally balanced, portion-controlled meals.

"We are asked to provide a complete meal for the price of a small latte," Hamburg said.

Each school day, the district provides some 4,300 meals. Over the course of the year this amounts to some $3.8 million for the food, preparation and labor.

About 90 percent of that cost comes from the USDA in funding and in food. Other funding comes from the district's operating fund. Hamburg said the district is on track to receive some $2.2 million from the USDA for its school meals program this school year.

If passed this week, Senate Bill 3 would mean some $130,000 for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"It's not a significant help for rural Alaska but it is a help," Hamburg said.

It's something to help the district accommodate the children who can't afford to come to school with full stomachs.

"This really happens that older siblings will take an extra juice box for their young siblings as an after school snack. It really happens that kids will ask for extra food to take home," he said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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