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Wildwood School Hunger

How Wildwood schools provide a crucial safety net for struggling families

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WILDWOOD — Leftovers never go to waste in Chef Stephen Serano’s cooking classes in the Wildwood School District, where almost half the students live in poverty.

In his first year teaching at the high school, Serano quickly learned the signs that a child is not getting enough food.

“They are always ready to eat,” he said. “On days we don’t cook, they get a little agitated. They’ll always take home any leftover food. We don’t waste anything. It would be a sin to waste food when these kids don’t have enough of it at home.”

His “Freesyle Friday” classes are designed to use whatever is left in the fridge. Students are free to take leftovers home.

“We can serve 10 or 15 people on stuff no one else would think about using,” Serano said.

Winter in Wildwood is a lean season for families struggling to survive until the return of tourists and jobs. More than 46 percent of Wildwood’s children live in poverty, the highest rate in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

So many children are eligible for the federal free meal program that the district is one of a handful in the state that also offers dinner, and provides free breakfast and lunch to every student.

“These are kids who have no margin,” said school Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings. “Parents may be working two or three part-time jobs and still making an average income of $13,500.”

School as refuge

One refuge for families is the school district, where everyone from cafeteria workers to the superintendent are filling the gaps and trying to lay the foundation for a better future.

Industrial arts students learn construction skills by building a tiny home and urban garden boxes to grow produce for the culinary program.

Excercise and sewing classes are part of the after-school program. So is a NASA challenge to design a space exploration vehicle.

“This is a home away from home,” said Glenwood Avenue Elementary School Principal Christel Pond. “Look at the number of hours some students spend here.”

Students can arrive as early as 7:15 a.m. for breakfast and stay for after-school programs that include dinner at 5 p.m. In between they have teachers who watch for the child who arrives on a cold day with no coat. Coats, shoes and food are among the school nurse’s supplies.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said she is inspired by schools that recognize the importance of meeting all of a child’s needs.

“The idea that children leave other issues at home is ludicrous,” she said. “People say that’s not the job of schools, but what happens outside of school has an impact. It also sends a message to families about the importance of school.”

Wildwood industrial arts teacher Michael Crane has planned 15 urban garden boxes. They will grow strawberries, lettuces, broccoli and summer fare such as peppers, tomatoes and herbs for a summer cooking program.

“We are teaching kids real-world career skills so they can provide for themselves and not just run to McDonalds,” he said.

Students had to design and price the cost of the materials. They are now building. The next step is applying for a grant for a greenhouse.

About 50 students registered for Serano’s cooking class. Justin Soto, 18, said he doesn’t cook at home but wanted to learn. His favorite part has been learning to make different sauces.

Trayvon Young, 18, is one of the oldest in a family of eight. He cooks at home, though mostly what his mom tells him. He likes learning to follow recipes.

“I like making breakfast stuff,” he said. “But risotto now is my favorite thing. I never had it before.”

For Serano, who is also the chef at Cafe Loren in Avalon, showing children different foods is one of his goals.

After-school efforts

When the school day ends, more than 100 students in fourth through eighth grades stay at the high school for an after-school program funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. They snack on juice and crackers, do homework, spend time outside or in the gym, then return for classes in sign language, sewing, cooking, instrumental music lessons, theater, karate, Zumba and the marbles team.

Jen Loper teaches an after-school and summer cooking program that includes budgeting. Students made a cookbook last summer.

“We set the table, eat together, and talk about the day, just like a family,” Loper said.

In the cafeteria, Danuta DiPietro finished her lunchtime and crossing guard duties and was warming Chinese chicken, rice and broccoli for dinner. With the district for 16 years, she knows most of the children she feeds.

Her nachos with ground turkey and cheese are especially popular.

“It’s always a hot dinner,” she said.

DiPietro averages at least 100 students for dinner, including some high school students who stop in after sports practice or just out of habit from their middle school days.

No one is turned away.

Last year 320 people attended a family event. DiPietro almost ran out of food.

Some students skip dinner but grab an apple or pear and a milk for home. Others said the school meal will be their dinner. There won’t be another meal at home.

The school has received financial support from groups including the Christ Child Society, Mustard Seed Foundation, Fraternal Order of Police, and the Lunch with Lynch Foundation. Founder John Lynch joined a recent dinner to play a game with students for the chance to win a Kindle Fire or gift certificates to Acme and Domino’s Pizza.

“It can make a big difference for a family to get a free pizza on a Friday night,” he said.

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Twitter @ACPressDamico

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