MOUNT IDA – U.S. Senator John Boozman met with county school administrators and food preparation staff last Thursday to discuss nutrition needs in area schools.
Superintendents Mike White (Mount Ida School District), Deric Owens (Caddo Hills School District) and Jerrell Strasner (Ouachita River School District) attended the meeting hosted by Michelle Abernathy (Food Preparation Director Mount Ida) at the Mount Ida High School Cafeteria.
Senator Boozman opened by stating that he wanted to meet with Montgomery County schools to see how they are adjusting to COVID-19 and its affect on student nutrition. He also briefly discussed high speed internet access.
All three Superintendents expressed thanks to the senator for funds received through the CARES Act, as well as funds to cover meal costs through the remainder of the semester.
Superintendent Owens stated that meal delivery in the spring helped Caddo Hills’ cafeteria fund to support itself. He explained that they with the meals being paid for with federal funds the reduced number of lunches sold was able to cover costs in the cafeteria.
Superintendents White and Strasner shared similar experiences in their districts. All three school districts provided meals to students through bus route deliveries and pick ups at school campuses throughout the spring shutdown. Montgomery County school districts participation rates were above many larger schools in the state.
Michelle Abernathy also expressed her appreciation for the federal support for free and reduced lunches. She did point out that she felt the qualification criteria was too rigid and disqualified some families who had seen a small increase in income. She stated that a $500 annual increase in income might disqualify a family from receiving reduced lunches. Families affected with multiple students could find it difficult to purchase meals at school without the federal support.
The federal free and reduced lunch program is an important part of all county school cafeteria programs with each reporting at least 70 percent of their students qualifying for one of the two programs.
Abernathy also discussed the difficulty of getting students to eat the healthy menu items required by federal nutrition guidelines. She stated that she witnesses students throwing away food because they aren’t familiar with them. Students don’t eat brown pasta or bread because it isn’t what they are used to eating. She added that due to many of the student’s coming from low income households they are forced to eat “convenience foods” that are cheaper when purchased.
She asked the senator to consider changes to the nutrition requirements to help encourage students to eat more of what they are served.
The superintendents also discussed the affect social distancing has had on cafeteria sales. Due to students’ inability to socialize in the cafeteria many high schoolers are choosing to bring a lunch and eat outside where they have more freedom to socialize on their lunch break.
Abernathy stated that one of the things she has done to combat this is to offer lunches to go.
High speed internet was also discussed. All of the administrators in attendance expressed concern over the lack of adequate internet access in their districts and the affect it has on virtual learning during the COVID-19 crisis.
Senator Boozman stated that he understood that there is a real need for better internet service in rural areas and stated that there are federal grants available. Montgomery County recently received a federal grant to upgrade existing service through Windstream for some of their customers. Other grants available require corporate partners that are not available in Montgomery County.
Senator Boozman stated that he would look into solutions for this problem and added that he would have a staff member follow up with those working on the issue within the county.
The senator’s visit was one of three stops last Thursday. He also visited Centerpoint High School where he visited with school leaders and toured the Agriculture Department’s new meat packing facility and their farm.