Free and reduced meals fill a need

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Donna Heilmann, food service director for Prairie du Chien public schools, said 50 percent of Prairie du Chien’s students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price meal program. (Courier Press file photo)

By Addison Mumm

With a population over 16,000, and over 2,000 people below the poverty level in Crawford County (from 2009 to 2013), the free and reduced meals is the only way some children can afford lunch and breakfast at school.

Created by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, free and reduced school meals offered through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs give in-need families the opportunity to supply meals to their children. Many child care facilities and school districts in Wisconsin, including the Prairie du Chien district, take advantage of the option.

Families must fill out a form with their names and household income to test their eligibility. Through the state-provided program, guidelines are created to inform the public about what is considered need-based. Depending on the number in the household and the income total, different families can fall under the free meal or the reduced-price categories. Families usually fill out the required form at registration or the start of the school year, but it can be completed any time of year.

Some Wisconsin families, however, are automatically eligible for the meal support. Those who fall into this group include children and adults who are part of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), W-2 Cash Benefits, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or FoodShare in Wisconsin), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), adults who are Supplemental Security Income (SSI)/Medicaid participants and directly-certified foster programs or Head Start, and at-risk after school or emergency shelter programs.

Child care centers and schools, like Prairie du Chien, are reimbursed through the state for the cost of making and purchasing the free or reduced-priced meals.

“There are over 50 percent of the Prairie du Chien students enrolled in the program,” said Donna Heilmann, food service director in the Prairie du Chien School District. “It has been up to 60-some percent in years past.”

Heilmann stresses the importance of filling out the form for families that may be eligible.

“All the information is confidential; I am very picky about that. It is nobody’s business to know who is part of the program,” she said. “If you don’t fill out the form, you won’t get the benefits.”

The goal of the program, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, is for both school-based and child care food programs to improve the diets of students and young children and increase the opportunity for them to eat a variety of nutritious foods. The meals and snacks served meet nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Students have a hard time focusing on an empty stomach, according to State Superintendent Tony Evers. This program works to keep low-income family children focused on their studies, not their hunger.

“This program is much needed in this area,” Heilmann said. “Some families don’t have enough to get kids nutritional meals on a day-to-day basis.”

Heilmann stated handbooks and training are available to food service employees and are always there for comments, concerns and suggestions. She said she can contact the state about any questions she has, whether it is about the food or a special case with a family.

For more information on eligibility for the free or reduced-price meal programs, go to the Department of Public Instruction’s website, dpi.wi.gov/school-nutition/national-school-lunch-program/free-reduced/applications.

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