News

School lunches start second year

Clover Valley Elementary School students lined up Monday to dine on hot dogs, pork ‘n beans, white or nonfat chocolate milk, and salad bar.

All of them gave a thumbs up to the hot dogs, but pizza day seemed to be the overall favorite. Others were less critical.

“It’s all good — every day,” third grader Jessica Menjivar said.

Now in its second full year, the district-wide hot lunch program in Oak Harbor is getting rave reviews from students and staff.

Last year was the first time in nearly 30 years that Oak Harbor School District served National School Lunch Program-qualified lunches to all students. Now all students have the opportunity to eat a nutritious hot lunch, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. David Connors, who works for Chartwell’s Corporation and manages the program, reported to the school board recently that the program had a very successful first year.

The total number of meals served exceeded the number forecast by 13 percent. While the forecast was for 574,384 lunches to be served, the final count was 650,753. The number of free lunches, based on income guidelines, was less than anticipated, but the number of reduced lunches was more than expected by half — 81,075 versus 51,467.

Community

served up support

Oak Harbor voters approved a $137,000 levy in 2001 to fund the program. That money pays for three lunchroom workers in each school, plus clerical support. A $300,000 limited government obligation bond paid for start up costs, and the cost of meals is covered by the lunch price or federal compensation for the free or reduced lunches.

This year the school board voted to include kindergarten students in the hot lunch program. Students in morning classes eat lunch, then ride the bus home, while afternoon classes eat as soon as they get to school.

Connors likes to get in the trenches, serving lunches and getting first-hand feedback from the students. That feedback helps him design a menu that is “highly acceptable to students,” yet meets federal nutrition guidelines.

“Tuna noodle casserole wouldn’t go,” he said. Hot dogs made with turkey meat are popular, as are low fat pizza, chicken corn dogs and french toast sticks.

A few things that didn’t go over very well last year were giant pretzels with cheese dipping sauce, and “scrambled egg pie.” Parents didn’t think the pretzels looked like good nutrition — Connors said technically they were — and students didn’t like the quiche advertised as scrambled egg pie.

“The students just stabbed at it,” Connors said. “It was a disaster.” Now, he’s got a plan. “We’re staying with the tried and true, but sneaking in variations.”

A typical week’s hot lunch menu includes “Hot Diggity Dogs,” cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and, on Fiesta Fridays, beefy taco salad. Entrees are accompanied by the “5 Star” salad bar, where students can choose from mixed nuts, cherry tomatoes, sliced or whole apples, pineapple chunks, carrots and celery sticks, and salad. The only rule, clearly posted at Clover Valley: “Don’t take more than you can eat!”

Clover Valley Principal Ric Packard does his daily lunchroom duty in the gym as groups of students cycle through every 20 minutes.

“It’s neat to have the kids together eating lunch,” he said, as one student greeted him with a hug.

He arrived at Clover Valley last year, just when the program was getting started.

“I was surprised there was no hot lunch program, but I’m grateful that the community felt strongly enough to support it.”

Dollars tied to cheap lunches

The schools get an added benefit from the program, as the amount of Title I federal dollars the district receives is calculated by the number of free and reduced lunches a district serves, based on family income.

Title I funding is used to supply extra classroom help for students below the federal poverty level. This correlates to the number of free and reduced lunches. Families can apply for the free or reduced lunch price by filling out a simple, confidential form that is sent home with every student at the start of the school year, or can be requested at any time.

Packard said without the hot lunch program, Oak Harbor School District calculated Title I funding based on the number of students receiving free milk. Apparently not many families bothered to apply. At Clover Valley that number was just 11 percent; district-wide it was 32 percent. With the implementation of the lunch program, 54 percent of Clover Valley students qualified for free or reduced lunches last year, with 33.3 percent district-wide. And, once a school hits the 40 percent mark the Title I funding can be used school-wide, not just for low-income students.

Four elementary schools in Oak Harbor have qualified at the 40 percent level: Clover Valley, Oak Harbor Elementary, Olympic View Elementary and Crescent Harbor Elementary. Only Hillcrest and Broad View are below that mark. Crescent Harbor had the highest number of free and reduced lunches, with 56.8 percent. Hillcrest is the lowest with 23 percent.

The bulk of the meals served at the elementary schools are prepared in the larger kitchen at Olympic View, then shipped out to the other schools. Each school had a kitchen added during the recent district-wide school remodeling, but the smaller kitchens at Hillcrest and Oak Harbor Elementary don’t have ovens.

“It’s an economy of scale,” Connors said. The complex distribution system allows the lunch program to act as one giant restaurant, with nine seating areas. Judging from the student reactions at Clover Valley, it’s a very popular restaurant.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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