Free lunch for every child targets marginal students

Students at Spencer Elementary eat lunch, which will be free for every student. (Mark Hancock)

Students at Spencer Elementary eat lunch, which will be free for every student. (Mark Hancock)

A single mother of two making $37,000 a year doesn’t qualify for a free lunch for her children. Add up the normal bills of a middle or low income household, and $3 a day for lunch can become a challenge.

That’s about the change for parents with children in one of 52 Oklahoma City schools that will now offer free lunch to every student, regardless of income level.

“Sometimes those kids who [do not qualify for] free or reduced lunch are marginal, so we are now for sure that they have adequate food for learning and are ready for the afternoon,” said Mary Coughlin, principal at Spencer Elementary.

Ninety percent of Oklahoma City students already qualify for free or reduced lunch, and some schools, like Spencer, have an even higher rate. But the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision will now cover the cost of all lunches in schools where more than 40 percent of students come from households that receive government food assistance.

“The stigma of kids not having a meal is gone,” said Kevin Ponce, child nutrition services director at OKC schools.

The district receives $3 for each child. A third pays for kitchen equipment, another third goes to labor and the remaining third pays for food, Ponce said.

In high poverty communities, schools can sometimes be the only source of nutrition for some students and a full stomach can be the difference between an attentive student and a fatigued one.

“If the kid has a full belly they are more apt to concentrate on learning, rather than listening to their stomach grumble,” said Spencer cafeteria manager Kevin Huffman.

Huffman not only views free lunches as a way to assist attentiveness in the classroom, but it will also help his lunch line move faster.

“It allows us to get done a little quicker in the day and concentrate on making sure the food is good, which is what we should be doing,” Huffman said.

Schools will no longer be bill collectors and entering pin numbers at the end of the lunch line will be a thing of the past.

Parents of free lunch schools will not have to worry about packing a lunch, giving students the chance to sample a variety of menu items that school cafeteria staff try to rotate in on a regular basis.

“Because we are no longer asking for money, kids are more willing to be adventurous eaters, getting to try fun foods like kiwi or tacos,” said associate director for child nutrition services Deborah Taylor.

Ben Felder

Ben is a news reporter covering local politics, City Hall and education in urban Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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