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Politics & Government

Community Leaders Call on Congress to Renew School Meals Programs

Marti Mikkelson
Children help themselves to free cartons of milk as part of the Summer Meals program.

As the school year approaches, Milwaukee’s summer meal programs for children are ending. Now some districts are watching Congress to see whether it renews the program for low income students.

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is set to expire at the end of September. The program provides healthy meals, even though they can cost more.

Jaylen Hill has been playing basketball with friends at Merrill Park on 35th and Clybourn. During a break they head over to a table and help themselves to free sandwiches, apples and cartons of milk. The park has provided the food through the Summer Meals program.

The 9-year-old says the lunches sometimes help offset the junk food he eats. “Chips, candy, juices,” Hill says.

Yet Hill admits, his refrigerator at home is stocked with plenty of healthy foods. He says it’s partly because his family relies on government assistance. “Sometimes I have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We get $1,000 in food stamps so we mostly get whatever we want,” Hill says.

Parent Dominique Hampton says she also tries to keep her fridge stocked with well-balanced meals. “Chicken, chicken legs, chicken alfredo, vegetables, rice, beans,” Hampton says.

But, Hampton says fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive, especially when you have four children. So she says she often turns to family and others for help.

“Sometimes we go to a pantry if it’s needed. At the pantry they give you meats, vegetables, pastas, rice and stuff, so we’ll be alright,” she says.

Hampton grabs a few cartons of milk to take home to her kids; they started school on Monday. One sponsor of the Summer Meals program is MPS. Superintendent Darienne Driver says the district provides a staggering number of free meals to students year round.

“This year in MPS we served 9.5 million lunches and 5.9 million breakfasts to our students. This is the backbone of the work we do. We are committed to educating the whole child. No longer is about what’s happening in the classroom in terms of reading and mathematics,” Driver says.

According to Driver, 82 percent of MPS students qualify for free meals. She is among the community leaders calling on Congress to extend the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore says while the nutritious meal program has been a priority in the past, she fears partisan gridlock will put it on the chopping block.

“There’s a lot of infighting within the majority party about the benefit of these feeding programs,” Moore says.

Moore says she’s proud of the bill Congress passed in 2010. She says it dramatically upgraded the nutrition standards for the free meals schools offer. For instance, it cut out fatty foods and replaced them with whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

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