Keshena students hauling food home

Menominee Indian School District is taking a proactive approach to make sure students are eating properly and that there is plenty of food in the home to better enable them to learn.

Volunteers spent Friday morning and afternoon filling backpacks with food to go home with 300 Keshena Primary School students from kindergarten to third grade. All told, 9,000 sacks' worth of food will be distributed over the course of the school year, with students going home every Friday with potatoes, cans of soup, fruits and other healthy necessities.

MISD received a $105,000 grant from the Running Strong for American Indian Youth organization. The district started the Smart Sack program two years ago as a pilot project with its youngest students, kindergarten for ages 4 and 5, but the grant is helping officials to expand the program.

"What we're trying to do is put our kids in a position where they're eating healthy, nutritious food and coming to school ready and prepared to learn," MISD Superintendent Wendell Waukau said.

Students will be bringing the backpacks back to school every Monday to reuse later in the week. Keshena Primary received its first shipment of non-perishable items earlier this week, and a second shipment will go to the school in December for the remainder of the school year.

For those students who are absent, backpacks will still be prepared for students to collect on Monday or whenever they are able to return to school, Waukau said.

The Smart Sack program started as a community engagement effort by the school district, and healthy food insecurity was an issue that came up. With some leftover funds, the district was able to pilot an initiative with 4-year-old students. The program expanded to kindergartners who were 5 in the second year.

"What we were trying to do is (figure out) how do you sustain this and grow it," Waukau said.

The Smart Sack program is only one component in a larger health initiative. Waukau said Keshena Primary is trying to emphasize better health through expanded recesses, physical education classes, better nutrition in the classrooms and the cafeteria.

"Childhood obesity is a huge concern that we've got targeted, and we want to make sure we offer our kids opportunities through nutrition education, through physical education. We even offer athletics here," he said. "We've got a number of options to put these kids in a position to be healthy."

Fruits and vegetables are provided as snacks during the day through another grant, according to Waukau. There are also snacks for students who stay after school for academics or athletics.

The school believes that providing the children with nutritious food now will help them to maintain those healthy habits when they go on to middle school and high school. Waukau said it will allow them to feel they're more in charge of the types of foods they eat, and he hopes the habits will rub off on the parents, as well, so they can help provide healthier food in the home. It has been seen in the younger students, already, he said.

The healthy initiative goes beyond the younger students, as well. With 80 percent of MISD students on the federal free and reduced lunch program, the Menominee Indian School Board is trying to make sure the food they receive from the minute they arrive at school is top quality, Waukau said.

MISD is currently conducting a study to find out what percentage of its students are overweight or obese.

"Every piece of research that I've ever seen points to the impact of proper nutrition and physical activity and what that does for kids and their ability to learn," he said. "What we're hoping is the kids will come ready to learn."

The school saw that students were eating the food provided with little problem, but they were also finding out details about the foods they were consuming and why they are healthy.

Waukau said the district's push for better nutrition is even being felt in his own home.

"I know the unintended consequence in my house is that we're eating healthier now," he said. "We're reinforcing it with our kids, and I can't think of a better way to engage the school and our community partners. This is something that's going to have such a huge payoff for our kids down the road."

Waukau sees the nutrition initiative as a form of dropout prevention, as well. He notes that the decision to drop out does not start at the high school level; it starts at the educational roots in elementary school.

The next goal is to eventually expand the program to the fourth and fifth grade students. The plan will be reviewed yearly to see what can be improved, Waukau said, and the grant providers will look at the effort and see if continued funding is warranted.

"I don't know if we'll ever get to the point of covering 4K to eighth grade; that would be ideal," he said. "Right now, we know we've got it in the concentrated area where it will have impact."

Lee Pulaski
Smart Sack program gets $105K boost through grant
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