How unpaid lunches are covered is a concern for the school board. Pictured, Boones Creek kitchen staff member Marilyn Odom assists two students in their lunch purchases.

Editor’s Note: The Herald & Tribune will publish a three-part series on school lunch.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

We know there was a time when the food prepared in Washington County’s kitchens was made from scratch. Long before that, it was up to parents and the community to gather and donate food from local gardens for a noon-time meal for rural area school kids. Nowadays, that’s not the case.

Food restrictions and requirements have definitely changed school lunches and the role of the lunch lady. But where does that food come from? How is it paid for? And how do schools navigate a student’s financial holdbacks when it comes to school lunches?

Getting the goods

At the start of each school year, the federal government gives an amount of funds called commodity money to the state’s school systems. Those funds are based on the number of students recorded from the school year prior. From there, the food choices are made.

Washington County’s Food Service Director Caitlin Shew explained that the school system then chooses to purchase items such as Tyson chicken or Land O’ Lakes cheese. They can also choose to have food processed and sent to the county school system, which is something she said the district has done frequently in the past.

Shew explained that the school can order an item such as chicken nuggets to be made by Sysco and have it housed in a freezer in Knoxville. But rather than stick to mostly processed foods, this year the school system changed it up a bit.

Washington County opted to put more of their commodity money into The United States Department of Agriculture Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which allows school systems to purchase fresh produce grown in the U.S.

“We put a large amount of money in (the program) to offer our students more fresh fruits and vegetables,” Shew said. “We rolled out salad bars this year, we’ve had strawberries, we’ve had watermelon, we’ve had cantaloupe — we’ve just really upped our game with our fresh fruits and vegetables. We really value that program.”

Shew added that the school system also uses Rhinehart Food Service in Johnson City and a co-op called SAM’S CO-OP (Southern Appalachian Mountain Food Co-Operative), which is based out of Virginia and is comprised of 15-16 food service groups from Tennessee and Virginia. Shew said the group joined forces to “gain buying power” and place orders for everything from paper products to food products.

Purchasing the food isn’t the only financial concern for the school system’s food service; while most guests at any other place you might purchase food like a grocery store or a restaurant are expected to always have funds available, that’s not always the case in a school cafeteria. So what happens when a student can’t afford a lunch?

So who’s paying?

Charging for school lunches isn’t a local issue. It’s one that has plagued school systems across the country.

While some school systems take away student trays when they aren’t able to pay and some substitute a hot lunch for a cold lunch (which would include food such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich), Washington County takes a different approach.

The Washington County Board of Education’s policy on charging meals states that in the event a student does not have adequate funds, the student is allowed to charge the meal. Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary said the nine-member school board has made it clear they want to make sure all county students are offered food during the school day.

“There’s been an emphasis from the board on if a kid is hungry, we’re going to feed them,” Flanary said. “Somehow or someway, we’re going to find something for a child to eat if they’re hungry. A hungry child is just not going to learn. It’s just scholastically unsound for us to let a child be hungry. If there’s anything we can do about it, we do something.”

The government offers its free and reduced meal program for families that meet the criteria according to their annual income. Shew said that part of the struggle for food service each year is getting families to sign up for the program, which could help pay for student meals.

“If they’re come through the line every day without money for lunch, they need to be in those programs,” Shew said. “That needs to be paid by the federal government if those kids qualify for that.

“What I think is happening in a small amount of cases is that parents don’t want to either be labeled in that manner or don’t want to take the time to fill it out, whatever is the reason. Then the board of education is pulling from their pocket to pay when that money, in my opinion, should be going to better their education.”

For now, the board won’t have to cover any huge costs. Though the school lunch debt can accumulate into the thousands, a donation last month covered Washington County’s debt, which was almost $11,000.

“Right now we’re not in the red. We had a donation of $1,000 (two weeks ago) from a church here in Jonesborough that just said, ‘Take care of these kids. We don’t want anyone hungry.’ It really pulls at the heartstrings to know that people out there care whether or not children have something to eat.”

While the board’s policy also says the director has the power to turn lunch debt over to collections. Flanary said he’s yet to have to do so, but he’s hoping the benevolence of the community allows him to refrain from doing so.

But there are times that neither a student, the board, or generous community members foot the bill; here and there, that comes from lunch ladies who are also ready to help a kid out on any given day.

“Our ladies usually keep money in their pockets,” said Brenda Cicirello. kitchen manager at Boones Creek Elementary and a “lunch lady” for 11 years now. “That’s just something that we do. If that child got their food and they’re still hungry and they’re a free child and they don’t keep money in there, we will be more than happy to get that child something else to eat out of our own pockets. We know the kids (that do that) because it’s usually the same ones every day. They’re just hungry. They’re just hungry.With fourth graders, you know, they’re growing. And some of them don’t get what they need at home.”

Look for part three of the school lunch series in next week’s Herald & Tribune.