STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

In Lake County, there is such a thing as a free lunch

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

More than 90% of school children in Lake County qualify for free or reduced price lunch. To make sure they continue to eat healthy meals once school is out, the county’s school district offers free breakfast and lunch over the summer to any child in the county.

When I dropped by the cafeteria around 11:45 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, dozens of kids from Lake County were winding their way into the school cafeteria at Baldwin Elementary.

They’re here for the summer school meals program called "Meet Up & Eat Up." There are hundreds of these programs across the state, one in almost every county. On tap today for lunch is milk (chocolate is by far the most popular with this crowd), followed by turkey and cheese sandwiches, carrots, apples and bananas.

David Forrester is director of business and operations at Baldwin Community Schools, which serves all Lake County kids. He says they’ve been running the "Meet Up & Eat Up" program for about seven years now, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

"It’s important for us as a school district to understand, especially in this community, that the meals we provide as a school district are the only nourishing meals that they’re getting," says Forrester. "This is a way for us to continue that during a time when we don’t always have contact with the students."

Forrester says the Lake County summer meals program runs through the end of July. Any child in the county is welcome - they don’t need to be in summer school, they don't need to participate in any of the summer enrichment programs - they just need to show up with an appetite. Mentally or physically handicapped adults up to age 26 also qualify for the free meals.

Roughly 575 students are enrolled in Baldwin Community Schools, but Forrester says only 125 students regularly take advantage of the summer meals program. That's about 20% of the school population, which means more than 70% of the kids in this county who are eligible are not here for these free meals.

Lake County’s participation level is just a little higher than the statewide average of 15%. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education says getting to and from these summer food sites – especially for kids in rural counties – can be tough, which could explain why the numbers are relatively low.

And, of course, when it comes to school lunches (even free school lunches), everyone’s a critic. When I asked the kids whether or not they liked the turkey sandwich lunch, the results were mixed.

One young girl I spoke to is much more than just a fan of the free meals, she’s grateful. Turns out today’s turkey sandwich lunch with a side of carrots, milk and an apple is the first meal this shy 3rd grader has eaten all day because at home her "mom forgot her food stamps at her work, so she didn’t get to buy  breakfast."

This young girl thinks the free "Meet Up & Eat Up" meals are not only healthy, they’re better than anything she’d have at home. Which is the best review a school cafeteria could hope for.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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