In its first year, the Winston County Schools System is giving free meals to children 18 years old or younger and 21 years of age if enrolled in a county school, thanks to a partnership formed between Winston County Schools, the State of Alabama and the USDA. Four schools in the system have opened their doors during the months of June and July this summer for kids who want a hot meal at no charge.
Winston County Schools Superintendent Greg Pendley said he is pleased with the work of the schools’ employees and the county school board for bringing the program to fruition. He said not only is the program beneficial for students, but it’s also helpful to the residents living in surrounding communities.
“It has aided our communities, which economically are not as vibrant as they used to be and are not as vibrant at any time as some communities are,” Pendley said. “It’s been an addition to our communities and to our student population and, on occasion, some of our elderly who might be widows or widowers. It’s helping people at no cost to our school system.”
Pendley said the program first started in the United States in 1968, but modifications have been made to the program since that time. Winston County was one of four or five schools in the state that had not previously participated in this particular program.
“When we learned of that, then we thought it was something worth exploring, and it’s been successful,” Pendley said.
However, it’s not just children who are allowed to eat the meals this summer, but faculty members may also purchase a meal at a minimal cost. Parents are allowed to purchase a meal when bringing their kids to dine at the schools, too. The cost for purchasing meals are $1 for breakfast, $1.50 for lunch and $3 for supper.
The schools are allowed to either serve breakfast and supper or breakfast and lunch, but they are not allowed to serve lunch and supper due to certain guidelines. The school district’s administrative assistant and child nutrition director, Danny Springer, said 63 percent of students in Winston County receive either free or reduced meals. He said they were made aware of the need for the program in their district after attending a child nutrition workshop.
“All the funding for this program comes from the USDA as long as you have a high enough percentage of participation, because we get a reimbursement for breakfast and lunch and/or supper at a certain amount,” Springer said. “We just have to make sure we stay within that funding. It covers food and employee costs, so hopefully there will not be any cost to the board.”
Springer also added that the percentage of meals has increased due to the number of Vacation Bible Schools occurring across the county. Any major community function that involves a large majority of kids, the district will try to provide meals this summer for those children. He also said three out of four schools are providing meals for their extracurricular programs holding practices over the summer.
Brandie Rennicker, Ann Harbison and Karla Stone are working in the lunchroom this summer at Meek Elementary School cooking and preparing meals for the town’s children and residents. Rennicker, who is the site supervisor over the SFP at Meek Elementary, said they receive approximately 30 kids daily for lunch and about 15 adults.
“To me, I think it’s a great program. I wish we had more children coming up. The only problem we’re seeing is maybe transportation related because the people that are in need, well if they’re financially in need and because we’re in a rural area, it’s harder for them to get up here to be able to benefit from it,” Rennicker said. “But, as far as being able to provide for these kids, I think it’s a great program. I think it’s the best thing we could do in order to give back to the community.”
Rennicker added that those 18 and under don’t have to be enrolled as a student at Meek or in Winston County to be eligible for a free meal. She said anyone 18 and under is welcome to eat for free because the school is considered an “open site.”
Meek High School Principal Marla Murrah sat with her daughters in the lunchroom Thursday and enjoyed a hot meal. She thinks the program is a major positive for the community.
“I know there are people here who have appreciated it very much and since we have summer school here, the students have been able to get two good meals a day, their breakfast and their lunch, and they have been focused on their work,” Murrah said. “Having good meals has helped those summer school kids to focus on their work. I’ve also witnessed community members here with their families, eating together as a family, and it has been positive in creating more togetherness and helping people who can’t afford [meals].”
Lisa Terry, a 17-year-old student at Meek High School, sat among friends at a lunchroom table Thursday afternoon. She sees the program as beneficial for the area’s kids.
“I think it’s great because some students go home, and their parents sometimes don’t have enough food. And it gets hard during the month and if kids ever need a place to come eat, the lunchroom is open and it’s free for kids,” Terry said. “For parents ... it’s really cheap, and the food is great.”
The program started Monday, June 2, and will run through Thursday, July 24. During the week of July 4, the schools will only serve June 30 and July 1, according to the county schools’ website. Winston County Schools are scheduled to begin the 2014-2015 school year Aug. 4. For more information, or for a schedule of times and menus at each school, visit the Winston County Schools’ website at www.winstonk12.org.