FLINT (WNEM) — It was a chilly February morning at Hamady High School in Flint when Jason Hightower waited in line.

“Certain stuff we don’t get,” Hightower said. “And with the pandemic, it’s a lot that we don’t get out as much and it helps a lot at least. And with the milk and stuff, well my kids drink a lot of milk.”

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Hightower was one of dozens picking up bags of food. The food giveaway he participated in is only one part of the food relief at Westwood Heights Schools.

The other part is a pantry–the main staple of the Best Food Forward Program. Though it’s mostly empty now, before the pandemic, it was filled with food students could take home to their families.

According to Westwood Heights Superintendent Peter Toal, 80 to 90 percent of the student body needs free and reduced lunch. The school district is working with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and the state Department of Education on the Best Food Forward Program. The goal is to eliminate hunger in school children.

“At least one in four children in Michigan were hungry prior to the pandemic,” said Diane Golzynski, director of the Office of Health and Nutrition Services at the Department of Education. “With the pandemic, so many more parents have lost their jobs or have had reduced hours that we believe that number is significantly higher.”

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Golzynski said many kids often depend on school to get their only meal of the day. When they’re hungry, it seriously impacts their ability to learn. Something Hamady High School and Middle School Principal Dionna Ross understands.

“The need is very, very apparent in our district,” Ross said. “A lot of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, so providing a service like this, especially during a pandemic, is really beneficial to our families.”

The programs appear to be working too. Early findings from a study by Wayne State University are promising.

“More families were relying on the food mobile pantry that’s happening at the schools as a result of this project,” said Rachel Dombrowski, researcher at Wayne State University. “We have seen a bit of a reduction in the very low food security number of families.”

By the end of the 10-year study, everyone involved hopes to know if ending hunger in students leads to tangible long-term success.

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