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Hot lunches in the schools?

"The Oak Harbor School District holds a unique distinction.Of the 6,600 students across the state who do not have access to a daily, federally-endorsed school lunch, 6,000 attend Oak Harbor schools. That makes Oak Harbor the only large district in Washington that does not participate in the National School Lunch Program.Monday night, a committee of local parents, school staff members and administrators recommended the district lose its infamous distinction and get a lunch program started as soon as possible.That may be easier said than done. The district has to pass a school levy first.The Food Service Feasibility Group has been studying the current lunch situation, or the lack thereof, in Oak Harbor schools for six months. They presented their final 60-page report to the Oak Harbor School Board Monday outlining proposals for a central kitchen located at the high school and a series of serving stations and kitchens at the various middle and elementary schools.The report estimates that at least half the district's students would take advantage of such a program by either paying about $2 per meal or through free or reduced-price support provided by the federal government. A parent survey conducted last November showed almost unanimous support for hot lunches among those who responded.According to the report, lunch sales coupled with state grants for kitchen construction and federally donated commodities could make the program almost pay for itself. Only indirect costs, such as custodial services, lunchroom attendants and some clerical support would not be covered by program revenue.That's where the levy comes in.The Oak Harbor School District levy set to go before voters May 16 includes $200,000 per year to hire people and pay for the program's indirect costs. Even though construction, operating costs and the food itself are not part of the levy, school board members told the committee the proposal can't get off the ground without levy passage because the support services are a necessary part.The district discontinued national school lunches in 1976 after participation declined and a school levy failed. Since then, many school kitchens and lunchrooms have been dismantled and converted to other uses. Today, only milk is available in the elementary schools and students eat homemade lunches in their classrooms. At the middle and high schools, the Associated Student Body operates programs offering a limited number of food items from cookies to pizza for purchase during lunch.Some ASB leaders have expressed concerns that a new hot lunch program could put an end to their food sales, a key fundraiser for the groups.Oak Harbor Vice Principal Linda Riffe, a member of the feasibility group, said some changes and adjustments might be necessary with a lunch program in place but coexistence can and does work.This goes on in nearly every school district and I've never seen any that have had to shut down their student stores or remove their pop machines, she said.The study group was most concerned with the students who don't eat at all or eat food of little or no nutritional value. The report cited studies showing that poor nutrition can lead to learning problems in kids. Group members also pointed out that Oak Harbor schools currently have no way to refrigerate or reheat lunches students bring from home.Bruce Worley, the district's director of business affairs, said that a districtwide hot lunch program could be in place as early as September of 2001. But to do so would require construction of a temporary central kitchen, probably at Olympic View Elementary or the remodeled Oak Harbor Middle School, while the final kitchen is being built and outfitted.Worley said that if the current levy is approved the lunch program could possibly keep going even if future levies failed.School board members said they will review the report and vote on the recommendations during their next meeting May 22. Among the decisions they will make, provided the levy passes, is whether district staff or contract employees will manage and operate the program."

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