Kent City — As the school year starts at Kent City Community Schools, Food Services Director Beth Ohman is thrilled to have one job requirement off her plate: collecting student lunch debt.
Now that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed the Meals for All program into law, Ohman is no longer obligated to call families with outstanding food balances. And in a close-knit community like Kent City where most people know one another by name, collecting student lunch debt was especially difficult.
“Being a small community, I know a lot of these families and I know their history. …My staff know the people, too, and might know that so-and-so’s not working; it’s a small town, you know? I’m so glad I’ll never make that phone call again,” she said.
Even though 63% of Kent City students already qualified for free or reduced meals in 2022-23, the Meals for All program will ensure that students whose families go through unexpected job loss or other financial difficulties during the school year also have access to a healthy breakfast and lunch each day. Michigan is one of seven states to enact such a program.
Kent City Community School administrators are asking families that qualified in past years for meal assistance to continue filling out the Education Benefits Form this year, because the information provided there helps determine additional resources for classrooms, guidance counselors and health and wellness services in schools.
Under the new Meals for All program, students will also be able to receive free breakfast before school each day. Ohman said that breakfast at all Kent City schools includes at least four items, including fruit.
Giving Parents Some Relief
Tina Wray is a Kent City parent and elementary school paraprofessional who is personally excited about not having to plan out packed lunches for her child each evening.
“On Sunday, if I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to give my kid for lunches … there’s only so many things you can keep in a bag for four hours. You can use an ice pack or a thermos, but it’s not the same. So it takes a lot of stress off,” she said.
Wray chose to work as a lunch aide in her parapro role because she’s passionate about ensuring that Kent City kids eat at least one good meal during the day.
“My thing is ‘eat more, talk less;’ that’s a big thing I always push (in the cafeteria). I like to see every kid, encourage them to eat … and tell them how important it is for their brains,” she said.
Research has determined that meeting a child’s dietary requirements benefits development and learning.
‘Being a small community, I know a lot of these families and I know their history. … I’m so glad I’ll never make that phone call (to collect student lunch debt) again.’— Beth Ohman, Kent City Community Schools Food Services Director
Variety of Foods Includes Locally Grown
As the person who makes all the food purchases for meals at Kent City schools, Ohman makes sure students have a variety of foods to choose from — a good balance between perennial favorites like pizza and Michigan fresh fruits and veggies.
“They have so many choices. They have at least three choices in elementary and they have tons more in the middle school and high school,” she said.
And since she began her tenure as food services director 14 years ago, she’s done her best to buy local products whenever they’re available in season.
“When I started in this position of ordering I never wanted to order Washington apples — that’s just not right. It’s like, ‘Hey, we live in Kent City, at least we can get something local,’” she said, adding that local selections aren’t always available because the Michigan growing system is short.
Though Ohman’s relief is enormous knowing she won’t have to make calls to struggling families, the real winners of the state’s new free meal program are the students who would otherwise be coming to school hungry every day.
“The free lunches are fantastic,” she said. “Feed the kids. Feed the kids. You know what I mean?”