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Tough tradeoffs for families as snow days accumulate in Detroit

The cafeteria at the Golightly Education Center, above, is full on a normal school day. On Wednesday, the room sat empty because the Detroit district was closed due to an ice storm.
The cafeteria at the Golightly Education Center, above, is full on a normal school day. On Wednesday, the room sat empty because the Detroit district was closed due to an ice storm.
Koby Levin

Continuing weeks of winter weather, an ice storm shut down school districts across the Detroit metro area on Wednesday. Over the past three weeks, public schools have closed for nearly as many school days as they were open.

While that could mean less vacation time come June, it’s worse than an inconvenience for working families. Plunging temperatures only intensify the burdens of procuring heat, food, and child care.

“Even if you can afford it, it’s an unexpected cost,” said Shimekia Nichols, a community organizer and parent.

While she enjoys the extra time with her children, she said, “there’s some financial disadvantages, especially dealing with child care and food.”

For the city’s poorest families, those unexpected cost can prove impossible to manage.

“This time of year families are experiencing tradeoffs,” said Stacy Kessel, senior director of marketing at Gleaners Community Food Bank, a food pantry that serves southeastern Michigan. “They’re having to decide whether or not to pay for an elevated heat bill or put food on the table.”

“When schools are closed, the kids have less access to meals,” she added. “A lot of the families that we serve rely on the free and reduced-price lunches that kids receive at school.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti of the Detroit Public Schools Community District said he is exploring ways to offer subsidized meals on snow days.

“Our decision to close schools is never an easy one but our main focus is ensuring the safety of students and staff as they travel to and from school,” he said in a statement. “We also consider whether the learning conditions are safe within school buildings and will remain safe in a sustainable way through the day when considering temperature, ‎electrical power, access to running water, and heat and cold.”

“We are exploring ways to provide meal options for breakfast and lunch on days when school is closed that utilize our food nutrition funds. ‎If we are able to do so then more information will be provided shortly.”

In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, 178,000 children are considered economically disadvantaged, meaning their families qualify for food stamps, subsidized lunch, and other government programs.

During summer vacation, organizations like Gleaners add programs to make up for the lack of subsidized school lunches. But no similar backstop is designed specifically for snow days.

It’s a painful reminder of the challenges students bring with them to school.

Poverty and its associated challenges —like poor nutrition — are an impediment to learning. Anti-poverty programs have been shown to improve test scores and graduation rates. But more than one-third of people in Detroit live below the poverty level — a rate that isn’t budging even as the city shows other signs of progress.

“[Students] are missing two vital meals a day because they’re home due to a weather-related closure,” said Norma Okonski, executive director of Oakland Hope, a food pantry that serves families in the Detroit metropolitan area. “It’s unfortunate — until a better safety mechanism is provided, schools are the only safety net that exists.”

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