Food insecurity doesn’t go away when school’s out for the summer.
Just under a quarter of Teton County School District No. 1 students rely on free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches during the school year. And this summer 2,900 meals and 1,600 snacks were served at Jackson Hole Middle School and Teton County Library.
But Wes Clarke, food services director, thinks the summer need is much higher.
“There’s a big discrepancy in that number,” he said.
The gap mirrors a national trend: More than 22 million American children ate free or reduced-price meals during the 2015-16 school year, but only 3 million accessed free meals during the summer of 2016.
In Wyoming only 21 percent of children who participate in the National School Lunch Program during the school year participate in the summer.
Clarke said the United States Department of Agriculture program in the summer, the School Food Service Program, is the “best program they’ve ever done” due to its simplicity. The only requirement is that there is milk with every meal, meaning Clarke sees less food waste and doesn’t have to worry about constantly counting calories.
“Kids just walk in and you can serve them,” he said. “You don’t have to question anybody. They just want you to feed kids.”
Protein, grains, fruits, veggies, done.
Clarke said participation has increased as the summer food program has expanded.
The summer food program ran from June 26 through this week. It can be hard to plan because the number of meals served fluctuates between 20 and 60 per day. The number depends on whether summer school is in session, when free breakfast and lunch is part of the schedule.
But the exact number, important for meal planning and food costs, isn’t the bottom line for Clarke.
One family, he said, came to every single meal offered at Jackson Hole Middle School this summer. The oldest of three siblings walked the others to eat.
“Even if that was it, it would be so worth it to me,” Clarke said.
According to the Wyoming Department of Education, summer food program sites must either be in the attendance area of a school where 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, or within the boundaries of a U.S. Census block where at least 50 percent of children are eligible. Then the site is open to all children in the area who are under 18 years old.
But those requirements can hamstring Clarke and his food service team. Some school districts, like Colorado Springs School District 11 — with a much larger student population of 28,000 — have more than 15 mobile sites with food-delivery vans that set up at trailer parks, apartment complexes and parks where low-income kids gather in the summer.
But in town, Clarke can’t serve food at Jackson Elementary or any park except Powderhorn — they don’t qualify. Last year he tried setting up a distribution spot in the parking lot at the First Baptist Church. To his surprise, barely anyone came.
“I remember asking myself, ‘Where are the kids?’” Clarke said.
Many Latino families, fearful of the paperwork — which asks for a Social Security number and an address — don’t apply for the aid during the school year and are wary of the summer food program, too, even though they might need it. Teton County School District has no obligation to report the data, and Clarke said he’s the only one who knows it.
“There’s a fear surrounding immigration,” Clarke said. “They don’t fill it out due to fear.”
He has learned that some parents are so afraid, they keep their children inside during the day. Clarke worries that the political climate will be detrimental to his quest to feed hungry kids.
“Will that influence how willing people are to fill out paperwork?” he said.
Paperwork is given to families at the beginning of each school year. In order to qualify a family of four needs to make $31,590 or less for free meals or below $44,955 for reduced meals.
Kids might not show up, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hungry throughout the year. Clarke said that one family told him they could only make ends meet when everything went according to plan.
“Otherwise, they have to choose between rent, their car payment and feeding their kids,” he said.
Most jobs, Clarke added, make above $12 an hour in Jackson — disqualifying them for food help. He has noticed that when jobs are plentiful, fewer students qualify for aid.
“But, in this town, can a family of four survive on $12 an hour?” he asked. “I don’t think so.”
During the school year negative balances can increase during the offseason, when people are out of work or working less. That’s why Clarke encourages people to enroll for the program during that point in the year because they are more likely to qualify.
“What we’re doing in this community is constantly playing catch-up,” he said.
Once school starts Clarke and his food services team will continue their work to keep kids fed. That’s during a time when some schools across the country are being called out for “lunch shaming,” or giving kids who can’t pay alternative meals that embarrass them in front of their peers.
“Our policy is that we will feed every kid every single day,” Clarke said. As long as students and their families show “responsiveness” when they are notified of negative balances, Clarke said, he won’t give them a substitute meal — a cheese sandwich with fruits, veggies and milk.
“One student gave me $1 a week,” he said. “I saw an effort. I believe that in the real world, at least you have to be responsible. You can’t just walk away.”
No alternative meals were given out last year, he added.
He and his team work hard to identify kids who might be hungry at home — talking to counselors and observing their behaviors in the lunch line. If kids who were on the free or reduced program last year don’t apply, he’ll know to follow up with them.
Generous donors help Clarke pad kids’ accounts during the year if they’re having trouble paying for lunch. And it doesn’t take much. Feeding a student on the reduced program breakfast and lunch for an entire week costs $3.50.
“You see a good kid, and it really just breaks your heart,” Clarke said. “A couple of bucks can help them feel like they’re normal.”