Vets Hall student feeding initiative opens hunger conversation

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Hungry schoolkids aren’t going to learn much of anything – at least not the lessons being taught. It was in December that Arcata High alumnus and friend to local beasts and children Jan Carr became aware that some students are, in prosperous Arcata, sitting in class with their stomachs growling every morning.

Carr, who has a well-developed network of followers on social who assist with her animal welfare endeavors, immediately asked for – and got – donation of snacks. 

The snacks she delivered to both campuses of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District (NHUHSD). The two locations, in Arcata and McKinleyville, host a number of high schools. Both campus’s librarians – Marsha Mielke at Mack High, and Jennifer Berube in Arcata - set up special tables to share the snacks with hungry first period students. “I brought them about 2,000 snacks from community donations, and I’m still bringing them.”

The food triage was well-received, but something more was clearly needed, something systematic. “I’d heard that teachers were offering snacks out of their own pockets,” Carr said. 

Carr’s next enlisted the assistance of fellow Arcata High Class of ’73 student classmate Tony Lucchessi. He had contacted her saying, “I’m here to help you.”

They spent hours talking to everyone who had something to tell her – students, teachers, staff, counselors, community members.  “I was shocked,” said the mother of nine NHUHSD students. “I had no idea that there were hungry children.”

Her next contact was Nicole (formerly Coco, of the former PastaLuego) Maki, who is busy establishing the new 14th and J Café at the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building. She told Carr that the newly re-energized American Legion Auxiliary was willing to help. The Legion has a strong tradition of assisting local youth, and was already moving to provide food assistance.

“I wanted to create a cheaper lunch program for students to keep them from having to go downtown at lunchtime,” said Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling. Carr’s initiative dovetailed perfectly with the expanding program of community services at the Vets Hall, which is located just across Stewart Park from Arcata High.

Carr took a tour of the hall and its newly refurbished dining room – which is now set to open  Monday, Feb. 3 – and thought it well-suited to the task. Maki and Carr envision providing pre-school meals at no cost to those who can’t afford it, and lower-cost lunches to students and community members who can.

BREAKFAST CLUB Jan Carr, Tony Lucchesi, Nicole Maki and Jeff Sterling discuss establishment of a pre-school student breakfast program. KLH | Union

Maki has connected with teachers at AHS, some of whom may volunteer at the hall. Sterling is also trying to relaunch youth programs to draw in students for fun activities in a safe environment.

Carr and Lucchessi also donate $500 cash to a weekly meal prepared in a culinary class, to which families in need are invited.

Sterling hopes that as the Vets Hall’s feeding efforts firm up, they will attract donations from business and corporate donors. “If we can get community support, we can both feed students and help build the Vets Hall.”

Carr hopes that the AHS Interact Club can begin placing snacks and hygeine products in designated locations at the school so that students can take them, no questions asked and no embarrassment involved.

Not so fast

The upstart hunger-abatement program seemed to come together easily, but the momentum was slowed by unintended consequences which quickly cropped up.

Arcata High has a federally funded nutrition break at 10:10 a.m. Were students to be full from a Vets Hall breakfast, they might not participate in the late-morning food break, jeopardizing its federal funding.  

“We have to meet a certain threshhold,” Berube said. “I’d hate to see that undermined.” She advocates establishment of an on-campus breakfast, as is done on other area campuses, along with the mid-morning break.

“You get two – lunch plus what else?” said Northern Humboldt Union High School District Superintendent Roger Macdonald, referring to the number of meals allowed by federal nutrition funding. While lunch and the nutrition break have been the choices up until now, Macdonald said he’s open to reconfiguring things.  

That could require reprogramming everything from bells to bus schedules to accommodate a breakfast program. It’s difficult, but doable, he said. 

Macdonald said just 40 percent of eligible students take advantage of the subsidized meals – 165 participate in the nutrition break, and 125 in the lunch program.

More affluent students tend to patronize the student store or head over to Wildberries Marketplace for lunch. That creates a crushing stigma for those who use the cafeteria to consume subsidized food - which makes the informal, non-judgmental  food provision in the libraries so vital.  

Macdonald said he is well aware of the stigma, and has strived to eliminate it. While he lauds the Carr/Vets Hall grassroots effort, he said the district has now embarked on a comprehensive scoping initiative to ascertain the demand for a breakfast program. This involves questioning all stakeholders  students, parents, teachers, staff and the community. He’s also talking to organizations like Arcata House and others in the relief business.

The research should be complete this spring, he said, and the board will act accordingly with student needs paramount. “If it’s best for our students, we’ll do that,” he said.

Carr and the Legionnaires still see the Vets Hall as an important component to addressing student hunger. “What’s wonderful about this is that kids can walk off campus, nobody knows where they’re going and they wind up here,” Carr said.

"The vets have stepped up with perfect timing to support hungry students," Carr said. "The vets' program will benefit the students in Arcata. That leaves two high schools in McKinleyville. McKinleyville High is in the process of developing a food pantry which I'll support as best I can. Clearly, the current school district food program is not meeting the needs of the hungry students. It's time the district steps up and makes changes. Changing the current breakfast from 10:10 to before school is a step in the right direction. Hopefully this can happen sooner rather than later. There are hungry kids now!"

This story includes updates, corrections and editions to the print version. – Ed.







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