Help for the holidays

Al Zuckerman helps stock shelves earlier in December at the Jackson Cupboard in the St. John’s Episcopal Church complex. The food bank, which provides for community members in need — like children over the holiday break — seeks volunteers to help stock shelves. Those interested in volunteering can email jacksoncupboard@gmail.com.

Waiting up to ring in the new year is easier if hunger keeps you awake.

Food insecurity doesn’t go away when ornaments deck the tree and presents pile up. Hunger over the holidays is a real problem for children who depend on Teton County School District’s free and reduced lunch program.

“We generally do see more people during the holiday season,” said Amy Brooks, the board secretary of local food bank Jackson Cupboard and a case manager at One22. “People are short on funds because of having to buy gifts.”

The district doesn’t have enough money, or USDA subsidies, to feed those children during schools’ winter break, which runs from Dec. 24 to Jan 4. That’s seven school days when kids might have gotten both breakfast and lunch taken care of.

This year, a total of 624 students in the district, or 22.5 percent, rely on the free and reduced lunch program. According to food services director Wes Clarke, this number is smaller than in the past — last year at this time, they were at 24 percent of all students.

Not everyone in need qualifies

But don’t celebrate quite so fast. When some families get a small raise in income, they become ineligible for the program — even as the cost of living in Jackson continues to rise. So while it may look like they have more money, it still doesn’t go far enough.

The annual salary needed to qualify for free or reduced meals varies based on household size. More information can be found at Bit.ly/2ioVKZx.

“I recently talked to a lady who had an annual income of $19,000, which qualified her student for free meals,” Clarke said. “The woman was able to get a new job just prior to the start of this school year and completing the free and reduced application. Her new $31,000 income makes her ineligible for the program, but she is really struggling.”

Clarke said there are often competing priorities, putting parents between a rock and a hard place.

“With such a high percentage of people’s income going to rent, it is sometimes hard to make enough to pay for school lunch,” Clarke said. “But their income exceeds the federal qualification guidelines.”

Good food helps learning

When the number of children getting meals from the district drops, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily getting nutritious meals packed from home in a lunchbox.

“We have fewer students eating school lunch,” Clarke said. “We also see negative balances skyrocket. This year, we have just over $7,000 negative balances across the district. Last year we were below $3,000.”

That means $4,000 worth of meals that students are eating but not paying for because they can’t afford the cost. Eating nutritious meals during the school day is especially important for student achievement.

For scale, breakfast at elementary schools costs $1.60, at the middle school $1.85 and at the high schools $2. Lunch costs $2.75 at the elementary schools, $3 at the middle school and $3.25 at the high schools.

“It’s a huge impact if they aren’t getting food,” Brooks said. “They need to fuel their brain, and if they aren’t getting nutritious food daily it affects their learning ability. That’s a known fact.”

The district isn’t sure if they could ever expand the program to cover winter break.

“We rely heavily on the USDA subsidies to make ends meet, and we do not get any federal funds when school is not in session,” Clarke said. “The USDA requires a district to have more than 50 percent of their student population on free and reduced to provide funding during breaks.”

Luckily valley schools are nowhere near that number. But that doesn’t mean kids aren’t going hungry when across town, people are feasting on holiday ham and expensive libations. And unfortunately, that’s not likely to improve anytime soon.

Clarke said that while the food service department always tries to cover its costs, the district does transfer over some money to make sure it can continue to operate.

“With talk of budget cuts on on the horizon there is a lot of uncertainty, making it hard to think about expanding services and providing meals during winter break,” Clarke said.

Needing a little extra help this holiday season, or any time year-round, is nothing to be ashamed of.

“We’d love to get rid of that stigma of going to a food bank for help,” Brooks said. “We hold no judgement, and it’s all confidential. It’s a necessity in life, and if it’s available and you can’t afford food, you should be there. We would rather people be fed than not.”

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, schools@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGschools.

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