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Back to School: Free breakfasts, lunches provided

By Staff | Jul 29, 2016

Last year, the Lee County School System solved the problem of free and reduced lunches and any stigma attached to them by giving nearly every student free breakfasts and lunches.

However, there are other ways students and parents to get help from within and outside the school system. You just have to look.

Starting last year, the federal government paid for lunch for more than 50,000 Lee County students, regardless of family income, because of the new way it funded the program.

Schools considered economically needy (78 out of the 84 in Lee County) are offered free breakfasts and lunches.

This year, only North Fort Myers didn’t qualify locally. The other non-qualifiers were Estero and Fort Myers high schools, Three Oaks middle and elementary schools and Sanibel School. These school did not meet the USDA guidelines, said Jennifer DeShazo of Lee County Public Schools.

Ida Baker High School, which didn’t participate last year, is this year.

Students there could still apply for free or reduced lunch based on need.

Before the program started, 72 percent of all Lee County students were on some kind of free or reduced lunch program.

“We wish more kids would take advantage of it,” said Dr. Robert Butz, principal of Mariner High School. “We only have about 200 who eat breakfast in the morning and around 1,100 lunches, but there’s a lot of healthy stuff they’re going to eat.”

Many schools take it upon themselves to help kids. For example, at Beach Elementary School in Fort Myers Beach, Renee Mulloy started “Renee’s Closet” where students can pick up not only school supplies, but also clothing and sneakers, with all donations made confidential.

At Mariner High School, there is a club that helps students in need. It helps students during the holidays and in the beginning of the year who don’t have the items they need for school.

The problem can be identifying those students.

“Typically, those in need won’t speak up. You have to filter through the weeds to find them because they’re embarrassed by it,” Butz said.

One of the biggest contributors to everyone involved in the school system is the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools. It offers countless programs throughout the school year such as mentoring programs, help with financial aid applications and scholarships, among other things, said Margo Brewster, communications director at the foundation.

“Our mission is to enhance the system for everyone. We try to offer as many initiatives the cover the entire range of people in the district,” Brewster said.

Currently, the foundation is doing its annual school supply drive at businesses throughout Lee County for the education resource center. That is open to teachers who need supplies for their classroom.

“We’ll have a couple hundred teachers come to the resource center throughout the year. We offer binders and paper, but we also have arts and crafts supplies, storage and books from all grade levels,” Brewster said.

One of the biggest events to help children is coming this weekend. The 17th annual Big Backpack event, will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Sunday at Harborside Event Center, sponsored by the Multicultural Centre of Southwest Florida.

Thousands of kids will receive free backpacks and school supplies while celebrating diversity in our community.

Admission is free to the event, which is the largest back-to-school outreach program in Lee County. In advance of the Big Backpack Event, community members are invited to participate in the Adopt-A-Student fundraiser. Each $10 donation provides a student with a new backpack and school supplies that include notebook paper, folders, crayons, glue, pencils and pens.

The first 2,000 children ages 5-12 will receive free backpacks and school supplies or while supplies last. Children must be present with a parent or guardian to receive free supplies. Get there early, because the line often begin to form as early as 7 a.m.

Many other school also have some sort of programs for people in need. For example, Trafalgar Middle School also has numerous ways to help students. It doesn’t have uniforms (although they wear collared shirts). It accepts gently-used collared shirts and Trafalgar T-shirts for students in need and gets donations of school supplies from area businesses.