Here in upstate NY we sort of go by those age old adages that summer starts Memorial Day weekend and ends Labor Day weekend. Kids here do not even start school until the Wednesday after Labor Day. Best we not discuss when they get out of school as I am sure that would astonish some of you out there.
Today I am sitting here with tomorrow being the first day of September. Labor Day is this weekend. I am thinking that I do not know where the summer has gone. Thankfully, I am not ending the summer the same way I started it. We had a horrible storm the end of May and I spent Memorial Day weekend without power. I am very reminiscent of that and also very grateful that I am not one of the thousands in NYS that are still without power from Irene.
I spent a good hour yesterday chatting with the new superintendent of my school district. He and I had known each other in a parent-principal relationship in his former position as the principal of the high school. Now, we have a new relationship as I am a school board member and he has been hired as the superintendent. Today, I saw that September is National Hunger Action Month so I was very happy that our conversation dealt with the overwhelming need to get more families to fill out forms for reduced or free meals in the school district. As I opened the page for http://www.hungeractionmonth.org, I was told that 13.5% of the people that live in the same upstate county as I do are food insecure.
My discussion with the superintendent centered around how the district in which I live and he works has always, until very recently, been very homogeneous. This is changing drastically and quickly. Building administrators talk about transient populations. Students come to school without the ability to learn because they are hungry. There are many support systems available. The major problem is that the waiting lists to access some of the help are enormous.
Need causes creativity to create a program to meet the needs of those who have this challenge. The first creative answer was begun by one of our high school teachers who started a weekend program to support those in our community that need help. The Food Bank of the Southern Tier has a backpack program where students get food for the weekend but there is a waiting list to get into this program. Enter the Participation in Government class and what has, over the course of a year, fed between 50 and 70 families and become an incorporated 501(c)3 not for profit organization – the M-EALS program which stands for Maine-Endwell (school district) Assisting Local Spartans (mascot).
Another method to help those who may have need is to be sure that families apply for free or reduce priced meals through the food service department at the school district. This involves government paperwork which a lot of people prefer to not fill out. What it does not involve, any longer, is a huge stigma attached to the student. Because the school district uses a pin-based system for meal payments, the free or reduced pricing is just figured into the system. A student enters a pin and no one, including the child behind him or her, knows what that student is paying for lunch.
The biggest issue, in my mind, is communicating to parents to fill out this paperwork. If a student comes into a district and had either free or reduced meals in a previous district, the family has to fill out the paperwork again. While this is tedious and time-consuming, it is in the best interest of the student that it be done. Studies have long shown that being hungry affects a student’s ability to learn. As a school board member, if I filter what we as a district are doing as what is in the best interest of the student, we then MUST find a way to be sure all who qualify take advantage of the free or reduced priced meals as this is what is best for the student.
Please look for a second part to this, “The Harvest is Plentiful,” which will highlight an elementary school’s way to address hunger in our community.