Free meals for all Ketron students ups numbers served

Rick Wagner • Oct 13, 2014 at 12:32 AM

KINGSPORT — If you provide free lunch and breakfast at a school to all students, students will eat more meals.

That's the lesson learned so far at Ketron Elementary School in the Bloomingdale community of Sullivan County, where the first two months of a free breakfast and lunch program for every student, regardless of income or free or reduced meal eligibility, has resulted in more meals being served in August and September of this year compared to the same period in 2013.

All told, through the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, the school has served more than 35,000 meals in those first two months, up from almost 28,000 the same time the year before.

The school has almost 700 students.

According to Lisa Holt, school nutrition manager for Sullivan County schools, the hard numbers are that this year over 37 days in the first two months of the school year Ketron served 35,210 meals or an average of 952 a day.

Last year over 36 days the same two months, school served 27,864 meals or an average of 774 a day.

That's an average of 178 more meals served a day.

"We're serving a whole lot more than last year," Holt said.

The Board of Education Monday night approved adding a school nutrition policy reflecting the new program.

"This is our pilot school," Holt said. Before the federal program, Ketron was among a group of county schools with a universal free breakfast program that the county funded on its own.

Tyler Brooks said his son and daughter like the free meals and take advantage of the lunch every day, as they did in the past with the breakfast program.

Brooks and his wife, Ashley, have to be at work by 7 a.m., he in Johnson City and she in Kingsport, so he said the children's aunt and uncle help get them to school. The children are fourth-grader Peyton and first-grader Keirsten.

"It actually makes it a little more convenient if you're in a hurry in the morning," Tyler Brooks said. "It's about time the government did something to help out."

He said his daughter likes the Pop-Tarts served and sometimes saves them for a snack later in the day and that his son sometimes eats breakfast, too.

Other county schools continuing on the county's free breakfast program this school year are Central Heights, Bluff City and Weaver elementary schools and Holston Valley Middle School.

Ketron was the only school in the system that qualified for the free breakfast and lunch program under the guidelines, which require 40 percent of free and reduced eligible students to be directly referred to the school system rather than those the system learns about only through applications.

School officials in Virginia systems, including Wise County, said they have discussed the program but are not doing it.

However, Scott County's Secondary Supervisor and Food Services Director Jennifer Frazier said only four systems in Virginia — Brunswick, Franklin, Petersburg and Richmond — are eligible systemwide and adopted the program this year in all schools.

"We just wouldn't at this point be able to financially sustain it if we did that route," Frazier said. She said questions include effects of having the program in some schools but not others in the same system and how the finances work out.

Direct certification includes students who received SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or WIC (Woman Infants and Children) benefits or may be in a foster care or homeless.

In neighboring Hawkins County, five schools are in the CEP program this school year: Carters Valley Elementary, the K-12 Clinch School, Joseph Rogers Primary, Keplar Elementary and McPheeter's Bend Elementary.

The federal program covers the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch multiplied by 1.6, with the school system making up the rest. Sullivan's school nutrition budget is self-supporting. Some schools meet the 40 percent cutoff but are on the threshold of participation being financially advantageous for their school district.

If every Ketron student ate breakfast and lunch, the monthly totals there would top 50,000.

However, Holt said many students don't arrive at school in time for breakfast and/or eat it at home. In addition, she said some students choose to pack their lunch or parents have them bring lunch because of allergy concerns.

As an example, for September Ketron served 8,465 breakfasts and 11,170 lunches.

The system and others nationwide in recent years have struggled with lunch participation after implementation of federal mandates on school lunches.

However, Holt said that the tide of concerns and complaints has died down for three basic reasons: the federal government relaxed guidelines and did away with maximum portion sizes, a concern of student athletes and other student more physically active; food suppliers have improved the taste and consistency of foods that meet the new mandates; and students, as well as people in general, are getting used to eating healthier fare.

Sullivan County students are out of school this week on fall break but will return next week, Oct. 13-17, which is National School Lunch Week.

For more information on school meals in Sullivan County schools and National School Lunch Week, go to http://www.sullivank12.net/departments/school-nutrition/.

Times-News staff writer Stephen Igo assisted with this article.

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