GWINN - Children who have come to rely on school lunches for nutrition will again have somewhere to go this summer.
For more than a decade, the Gwinn Area Community Schools has overseen a site of the Summer Food Service Program, a federal program directed through the Michigan Department of Education that aims to feed children throughout the summer months.
"They thought specifically low-income children depended a lot on school lunch programs to get the majority of their nutrients and healthy food choices," Gwinn Superintendent Mike Maino said. "During the summertime, those children missed out."
Students eat lunch in the Gwinn High School cafeteria last week during the district’s final day of school. During the three-month summer vacation, daily lunch will continue to be available to local children through the Summer Food Service Program. (Journal photo by Kyle Whitney)
According to Michigan's Center for Education Performance and Information, 61.3 percent of students in the Gwinn district - including 84.4 percent at K.I. Sawyer Elementary - are eligible for either free or reduced lunch.
Just shy of 50 percent of students in Ishpeming meet the designation, as do fewer than 30 percent of students in both Marquette and Negaunee.
From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday between June 13 and Aug. 26, kids can grab a free lunch at the Salvation Army building at 302 Explorer Ave. in Gwinn.
Though there are age restrictions on the lunch program - it is only available to children 18 years of age and younger - there are no geographic restrictions. Any children who come can eat.
Maino said that when the program first started in the early 2000s, more than 70 kids would show up for lunch each day. That number grew as the popularity of both the SFSP and programs at the nearby "W" swelled.
Recently, turnout has slipped to an average of between 60 and 65 kids each day, but Maino said he has heard nothing but good things.
"People wonder why everyone is not doing this, why all school districts are not doing this," he said. "If parents are working and children are home alone or with babysitters or whatever, are they getting a good lunch?
"This was just another way to make sure that children get at least one nutritious meal every day."
Gina Sterwald, Gwinn's food service director, has been with the district for 22 years and helped to usher in the SFSP so many years ago.
K.I. Sawyer had been shut down just years prior and Sterwald said the need for a summer lunch program was obvious.
"Money is always an issue with families with low incomes, families below the poverty line. Buying food for kids is expensive," she said.
The funding - Gwinn received $10,476 last year - pays for the salary of a program administrator and reimburses the district for the meals served.
There are more than 1,000 SFSP sites in Michigan, including 20 in the Upper Peninsula.
Sterwald said the impact that the program has on the local community is clear. And sometimes, it goes beyond food.
"If a cook needs to set things down and hold a baby while a mother feeds another child, that happens," she said. "There's a lot of nurturing going on. It's more than just feeding kids."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.