- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2020

FOND DU LAC, Wis. (AP) - Every day, there are children at school who are distracted because of physical discomfort.

They need additional food, or lack appropriate clothing or personal hygiene products.

A new pilot program at Woodworth Middle School now aims to offer students an opportunity to recycle food and share it with others.

Instead of throwing uneaten food from the district’s food program in the trash, kids can place items on a food share table monitored by staff, according to the Fond du Lac Reporter.

Principal Tim Schipper said the idea took shape after he and his staff learned schools in several states offered similar programs. From there, teachers on the Fond du Lac Education Association’s executive board took it to administration, after noticing there was a need.

“We have so many kids that come to school hungry and we knew that this food could supplement their needs,” Schipper said. “Our vision is to do what’s best for kids to ensure success, so we try to control what we have control over. “

Shareable items include unopened, pre-packaged milk, juice, yogurt, cheese sticks and cracker products, food items with a peel - like bananas and oranges - and washed and wrapped fruit with an edible peel, like apples.

All foods prepared outside the meal program are prohibited. Monitors dispose of all unclaimed food left on the food share table at the end of the school’s final meal period.

If the pilot proves successful, food share tables could spread to other schools in the district.

The school lunch program in Fond du Lac, offered through Aramark Food Services, follows the “offer versus serve” system set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means that kids get to choose the items, to some extent, that make up their lunch.

For instance, Schipper said each day students are offered a mix of proteins, grains, fruits, vegetables and milk. They need to take at least three of the five components to make up a meal, and one of the choices must be a fruit or vegetable.

Students are always encouraged to take only what they are going to eat, but for many reasons they still inevitably end up with food they don’t eat.

“This method tackles two birds with one stone - reducing waste and providing yet another opportunity for kids to grab a little bit more food at no cost to them,” the principal said.

The new initiative is just one of many ways Fond du Lac schools work to help students in need. The district also partners with the Fondy Food Pantry, a local nonprofit that provides about 780 elementary students with weekend breakfast, lunch and snack items during the school year.

Students battle more than just hunger

Woodworth sixth grade teacher Gillian King says students also struggle in school when they are uncomfortable around their peers or embarrassed by the clothes they wear.

“It is difficult to learn when you are too cold, too hot, or feel ashamed,” King said. “Our students cannot be expected to do their best in school until their basic needs are met.”

Seven years ago she started a caring closet in her classroom that has since expanded into a separate room for school-wide use. Offerings include gently-used shoes, clothing and school supplies, along with personal hygiene products, like shampoo, deodorant and toothbrushes.

Several local businesses donate hygiene products and undergarments/socks. The Women’s Service League provides funds through grants and private donors also help out when needed.

“We get clothing donations from families who know about the closet through social media, word of mouth, or students,” King said. “People are so thoughtful by dropping off donations, gift cards or cash.”

Students and families contact King or special education teacher Nora Ballwantz if they are in need, or students can be referred by a teacher. About 25 students a week or more make use of these resources, in a confidential and safe environment.

Around the school district, all schools provide for students in a similar way, which this time of year includes making available coats, hats, mittens, snow pants and boots. Riverside Elementary School also offers bedding and blankets. Fond du Lac High School provides students with donated prom dresses.

“Most of these programs, if not all, are funded through the generosity of our staff, parents and the community,” said Superintendent Jim Sebert. “People are always generous when it comes to helping kids.”

Meanwhile, Fond du Lac STEM Institute senior Ethan Wilke has taken it upon himself as a capstone project to start up a pantry at the district’s STEM Institute for students and their parents.

“I have gone to a couple of different organizations and am trying to implement a few aspects of what I had observed from them,” Wilke said. “I have always wanted to be able to help others. Hopefully Iwill see my goal come to fruition before I go off to college.”

For students experiencing homelessness, there are additional resources available through the district to help meet their needs, such as hygiene kits and school supplies.

The district and community keep changing socio-economically, Sebert said. About 45% of students are economically disadvantaged and qualify to receive free and reduced lunch.

“We need to see those statistics as opportunities and band together as a community to ensure all kids have the ability to pursue an unlimited future after their K-12 experience, Sebert said. “These types of additional resources do just that.”.

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