Eau Claire school district searches for ways to feed homeless students on canceled days

Schools have started food pantries as a solution to the many snow days


© 2019 Meyen

The food pantry at North High School has become a source of food for students.

February in Eau Claire saw the highest amount of snowfall in almost a century, according to the National Weather Service. It received a record 53.7 inches, blowing away the previous record of 28.2 inches in 1936. The 4.5 feet of snow forced the Eau Claire school district to cancel 11 days of school.

This has not only forced students to lose routine, but it has also caused some students uncertainty about where they will get their meals for the day.

The Eau Claire school district has about 350 homeless students enrolled in the 2018-19 school year.

Deborah Lewis, the partnership coordinator at Lakeshore Elementary School, said that the number of homeless students could potentially be higher, but not all families disclose that information to the school board.

“Sometimes at the elementary level, we don’t always know specific names of the homeless students,” Lewis said. “Children could start out with a home, or a place they’re renting, and for whatever reason they end up losing it and become homeless. Some families go from friend to friend or family to family. Some even just live out of their car.”

Danielle Claesges, the Eau Claire homeless program coordinator, shed some light on the process of recognizing homeless students.

Claesges said staff members at the Eau Claire Area School District have been trained to identify homeless students and refer them to the program. Sometimes parents identify themselves to the program, which makes the staff members’ job easier to identify potentially affected students. The program notifies the school counselor, and from there they look at the students’ needs such as transportation and food.

The inclement weather is something that schools cannot plan for. It affects transportation, yearly curriculums and food supply for students.

A regular school day provides a hot breakfast for students before they start their classes and lunch anywhere from 10:15 a.m. to noon.

To add to the normal hours when students can receive food, Janelle Patenaude, the partnership coordinator at North High School, has also opened a food pantry where students can come and choose from a variety of snacks at any time of the school day with their teachers’ permission.

One thing she has learned about homeless students through opening the food pantry is that the food has to be quick, easy and accessible. Some of these students don’t have stoves, pots, microwaves, utensils or can-openers.

Sam’s Club has partnered with the food pantry at North High School and they donate fruit, beef jerky and juice on the first day of every month. Other companies like Kwik Trip, Shepard’s Closet and Pan-O-Gold Baking Company have also teamed up with the high school in order to provide food for students to take home after school and to stock up and take home over the weekend.

Patenaude said she’s aware of only a few homeless students at North and it’s up to them if they choose to confide in her or not.

“I remember first hearing the number of homeless students the school had years ago (and) thinking, that can’t be right,” Patenaude said. “That seems so high. And that number didn’t have a face. But then when I started working with the kids and they tell me things about themselves like, ‘I’ve been living with my friend’ or ‘I’ve been staying at my boyfriend’s place,’ then that statistic finally had a face.”

Kids do better in school and perform better in their classes when they are well fed, and Patenaude said she isn’t naive to that.

Unfortunately, when school is canceled it’s due to weather safety reasons so the program doesn’t serve meals on those days.

“We know those kids rely on that food on a daily basis, but there’s nothing we can do on those snow days,” Claesges said. “Unfortunately, our buildings are closed and those kiddos do not have an option. You can’t predict when a snow day is going to happen so preparing for that is difficult.”

The district is always looking for new ways to improve their system. Claesges said she’s a person who believes there’s always a solution.