Free summer meal program will also offer free books to kids.

June 14, 2019

Mary Ann Nielsen, left, and Sharron Brown.

Free summer meal program will also offer free books to kids.

By Kate Krieger-Watkins, MCP Correspondent

According to NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association), students tend to lose a greater proportion of their school year gains each year as they grow older, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. At the kindergarten to second grade level, students can lose up to two to three months of reading skills. A group of area volunteers, educators and employees have gotten together to help promote summer literacy for Mason County children, ages 0-18.

Through Mary Ann Nielsen, Mason County Central Schools’ food service director, a program called Let’s Meet up, Eat Up and Read Up has been developed as an extension to the free kids summer meals program that is offered throughout Mason County. The program has been running for over 25 years and this year features five locations, where children under the age of 19 can eat for free, Monday through Friday. The program will run from June 17 to August 2 at Mason County Central Upper Elementary in Scottville, Pere Marquette Early Childhood Center in Ludington, Emanuel Lutheran Church of Ludington, Mason County District Library Ludington branch and Ludington Waterfront Park. Each site is chosen based on its proximity to a school whose free and reduced lunch rate is over 50 percent and is regulated by the state and federal government food standards.

“Every child who walks into one of the locations, if they’re under 19, they get a free meal,” Nielsen said. “We try to make the meals kid-friendly. A lot of the meals are items we know that are popular during the school year.”

In addition to the free meals, this year, every Friday, each child who receives a meal will also receive a free book. Nielsen stated that about four years ago, kids received a book at the end of the summer meals program and then the idea just kind of went to the wayside. It was when she was talking to Angie Taylor, director of MCC’s Victory Early Childhood Center, that they decided to try the program again, but do it weekly instead of at the end. This way the kids would collect more books for their own library and they’d have more to read over the summer, instead of waiting until close to the end.

“The summer meals program is so important to our communities and the families that live within our communities,” Taylor said. “These opportunities within our communities not only provide nutritional meals, it helps take a financial burden off many of our families during this no school time. I am also pleased to see the free book Fridays encouraging the importance of reading and most of all just getting books into the hands of our kiddos and into their homes.”

Nielsen also said that her staff at MCC has really gotten excited about giving books away on Fridays, especially Sharron Brown, who has worked for her for many years.

“Sharron has a passion for kids and for feeding kids,” she said. “She does Waterfront Park. She used to take an old van there and feed any kid who showed up, but now she sets up tables and a banner and she probably feeds around 75 kids. That site has really climbed in numbers thanks to her.”

With the five locations having staggering start times, area children should be able to find a free meals somewhere close to home this summer and gain up to seven free books that they can choose on site.

“All the books were donated,” Nielsen said. “Brain Dotson, the principal at Foster Elementary School gave us so many books. He had asked Tara Autrey, who helps the Reach Out and Read program with Spectrum Health who called and asked for flyers and when we told her what we were doing she told me that she could get me books. She talked to Dotson at Foster to see if she could take books and she then linked up with us and delivered all these books. It was great.”

Dotson said that every year the school gets new books through the book fairs for the library and they take into account what books haven’t been checked out in a long time, or duplicate copies of books and those were the books that were collected to give away to children coming to the meal program.

“Last year I ran a pilot summer book swap at Emanuel Lutheran Church where lunch was served to kids around the community,” Dotson said. “I put together a cart of books and had more to replenish as needed. When students came to lunch, I asked the church to encourage kids to take a book or swap a book. This year I met with Tara Autrey and let her know that I had enough books that I thought we could make a bigger impact on kids across the county, so we’re sending books to all the lunch locations throughout Mason County. I feel that summer reading is vital for students to maintain their academic gains that are made throughout the school year. I often see scores drop from our spring testing to fall testing and if we can get books into the hands of kids all summer long, then maybe we can prevent this summer slide.”

Along with Dotson, Franklin School staff and Mason County Central Schools staff donated books along with Jacquie Gerould, the local Power Book Bags representative (and Dotson’s mother-in-law) who donated as well, giving the summer meals program over 3,000 books to hand out to kids during the summer. Power Book Bags have available books at the Lakeshore Food Club and also in the Lakeshore Resource Network side of the same building.

“All of us have the same goal, to get more kids reading,” Autrey said. “We starting to work together, so we weren’t overlapping with projects and basically for the overall betterment of Mason County.”

Nielsen said the Mason County District Library is fully onboard and would be able to get more books if needed to support the program. Nielsen said he is hopeful that next year she may be able to give out books more than just one day a week as well.

“I really love this program,” she said. “With all these books, we can now help so many kids start their own collects at home and provide them a meal each day during the summer. They can come have a full meal and then go home and read during the afternoon.”

For more information about the program and the site locations and times, contact Mary Ann Nielsen at 231-757-5721.

“Getting books into the hands of students all summer long will make a great impact on student growth and improve literacy skills,” Dotson said. “We are very fortunate to have donors and advocates in Mason County that support the schools in many ways.”

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.


Eats & Drinks

Eats & Drinks

Area Churches