By Jessica Farrish
In Raleigh County, there is such a thing as a free lunch this year — and school cooks are making many of them from “scratch.”
School nutrition is undergoing a transformation in Raleigh County, said Teresa Baker, director of child nutrition for Raleigh County Schools.
One major change is that during the 2013-2014 school year, every elementary school student in Raleigh County will qualify for a free school lunch and breakfast, regardless of income.
In the past, parents had to apply for students to receive free and reduced-rate lunch and breakfast, based on income, said Baker.
Under the new program, offered though the federal Community Eligibility initiative — a voluntary program created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — schools are eligible for federal reimbursement based on the percentages of “identified” students in the school.
“Identified” groups include kids who attend Head Start, are homeless and whose parents receive welfare.
Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown pointed out at the July 23 BOE meeting that the new program will help the “working poor” and that there will now be no stigma attached to having a free lunch.
Brown added that it is critical to the new lunch program that students attend school regularly and that they eat lunch at school.
“Participation rates at the elementary level must improve for us to sustain this type of program over a long period of time,” Brown stated. “The more students that eat, it will offset the cost, and that will come through federal reimbursement.”
There is no need to apply for the free lunch and breakfast, and kids will receive the free programs just as according to Baker.
“Raleigh County felt like we should do all 19 schools and not show favoritism to any one certain one, or expose the need in a certain area,” said Baker. “So we chose to come on board, but we chose to make it an equal playing field with everybody on the elementary level.
“Everybody needs a little helping hand, the way the economy is.”
She added that just as transportation and books are free to students, breakfast and lunch will be free on the elementary level.
West Virginia was one of several pilot states invited to the program, along with New York, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Florida.
The voluntary program was open to all state counties in 2012 and is expected to be nationwide next school year.
For those who may be suspicious that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, Baker explained that federal lawmakers and Raleigh school officials are expecting higher attendance rates and better-behaved students since studies show that students who eat regular, healthy meals are likely to have fewer disciplinary problems and to show better academic performance.
BOE officials are also hoping that the free meals will encourage students who are at-risk of dropping out of school to attend more regularly and to become more involved at the school.
The new program won’t be confusing to students or parents, said Baker.
“There’s not going to be any kind of change as far as how we go about serving,” Baker said. “The children will have their scan cards, they will go through, or they scan it off of rosters in the classroom.”
Big changes are coming to the way breakfast is offered at elementary, middle and high schools, too, Baker said.
Under a new bill passed by state lawmakers, all schools will be offering breakfast in two distinct ways to students during the 2013-2014 academic year.
Decision makers at each school will choose two options from a list of three: traditional breakfast, “grab and go breakfast” that is eaten in the classroom, or a “breakfast after first period” that is served after the first class.
The bill is aimed at increasing the number of kids who eat free breakfast at the school, she said.
“Beckley-Stratton (middle) actually did breakfast after first, and they went from 71 meals a day to 461 meals for breakfast,” reported Baker. “We feel like children who don’t like to eat early will want to eat later.
“The principal at Beckley-Stratton made the comment that by students eating breakfast, it seemed to control the disciplinary problems they had.”
Baker said she wants to reassure parents that the menus in the schools are getting healthier, too.
Cooks are moving away from serving processed food and will instead be serving more “made from scratch” meals this year.
Baker and three school cooks — Kay Glover (Park Middle), Vickie Greer (Independence Middle) and Keith Wooten (Stratton Elementary) — recently worked with a group of cooks in Huntington to learn to cook meals “from scratch.”
They plan to train other school cooks in those skills prior to the start of the school year.
“The lasagna and spaghetti was always home cooked,” Baker explained. “But now it’s getting into bringing raw chicken breast or chicken on the bone.”
“From scratch” pizzas will also be on the menus, along with mashed potatoes made from raw potatoes.
In some cases, Baker said, food will be purchased from local vendors.
“We just have to make local recipes and train the cooks and teach them how to do this so we have a product that is worth eating and has flavor,” said Baker. “We have to take out the salt, and by taking out the salt, we have to find seasonings and spices that are non-salt to use to give these students a product that’s palpable, that they want to eat.
“The new generation was raised on processed foods and now they need to be re-taught,” said Baker.
Baker said that menu changes introduced last year — fewer calories and carbohydrates and less sodium — will be followed this year, too.
“You saw last year more fruits and vegetables and whole-grains,” she said. “We found the students actually liked it better (by the end of the year) than they did at the first of the year.
“They began to come to acquire that taste for the fruits and vegetables they may not be receiving at home or the parents are not able to provide.”
Baker urged parents and students to support the school cooks, who work long hours and are also learning new recipes this year.
“Cooks are professionals,” she said. “They work very hard.
“They’re probably among the top employees of any school system,” she said.
“It’s a tough job.”
Baker said the snack program will be available for pre-schoolers again this year and that the “supper program” will still be offered to students involved in after-school programs that involve 10 minutes or more of classroom instruction time.
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