Michigan schools try to end student hunger

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FLINT (TBEN) – It was a cold February morning at Hamady High School in Flint when Jason Hightower stood in line.

“Some things we don’t get,” Hightower said. “And with the pandemic, it’s a lot that we don’t get out so much and that at least helps a lot. And with the milk and all that, my kids drink a lot of milk.

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Hightower was one of the dozen to collect sacks of food. The food gift he took part in is only part of the food aid to schools in Westwood Heights.

The other part is a pantry – the main component of the Best Food Forward program. Although it is nearly empty now, before the pandemic, it was filled with food that students could take home with their families.

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According to Westwood Heights Superintendent Peter Toal, 80 to 90 percent of students need a free, discounted lunch. The school district is working with the Eastern Michigan Food Bank and the State Department of Education on the Best Food Forward program. The goal is to eliminate hunger among schoolchildren.

“At least one in four children in Michigan was hungry before the pandemic,” said Diane Golzynski, director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services at the Department of Education. “With the pandemic, so many more parents have lost their jobs or reduced their working hours that we believe the number is significantly higher.”

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Golzynski said many children often depend on school for their only meal of the day. When they are hungry, it seriously affects their ability to learn. Something that Dionna Ross, principal of Hamady high school and college understands.

“The need is very, very obvious in our district,” said Ross. “Many of our students are entitled to a free and discounted lunch, so providing a service like this, especially during a pandemic, is really beneficial for our families.

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The programs also seem to be working. The initial findings of a Wayne State University study are promising.

“More and more families relied on the mobile school pantry as a result of this project,” said Rachel Dombrowski, researcher at Wayne State University. “We have seen a slight reduction in the very low number of food secure families.”

At the end of the 10-year study, everyone involved hopes to know whether ending student hunger leads to tangible long-term success.

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