Lunch program gets green light

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Education: Mountain will serve as guinea pig for the district

By Jennifer Garcia

Help is on the way for some children that attend Los Alamos Public Schools and qualify for free and reduced price lunches, but not everyone who qualifies will be able to take advantage of the program.

At least not yet.

During the Tuesday Los Alamos Board of Education meeting, and supported by Mountain Elementary Principal Gerry Washburn, board members voted 5-0 in favor of starting a free and reduced price lunch pilot program at Mountain.

The discussion originally focused on what it would take to bring the program to all LAPS schools; however Chief Financial Officer John Wolfe told board members that a lot of work would need to be done if they decided to roll out the program district-wide.

“There is a financial burden that would be placed upon the district,” Wolfe said, pointing out that it would be the district’s responsibility to collect money for free and reduced lunches. The company, Summit, that currently provides hot lunches at Mountain, is collecting lunch money. In addition, Wolfe said the district would have to administer the federal commodity program, which allows schools to select foods from a list of various foods purchased by the USDA and offered through the school lunch program. He also said an employee would probably have to be hired to do the paperwork, collect money and perform other duties associated with the lunches.

In addition, Wolfe said there will be a gap in what the district would collect for lunches and what they would be reimbursed through the federal program.

Right now, approximately 155 Mountain students buy hot lunches for $3.75 each. But students that are unable to pay for lunches are assisted by the Parent Teacher Association, which helps foot the bill so students can eat.

Under the National School Lunch Program, the federal government would reimburse LAPS for meals served. All paid lunches would see a return of $0.26, while free lunches would yield a $2.77 return and reduced-price lunches would yield a $2.37 return.

Washburn said the idea of implementing the program came about because the PTA was considering using a scholarship system to help pay for meals. During that exploration, Washburn said some people submitted applications for free and reduced meals and would definitely qualify.

“We had 16 people that put in applications, who meet the reduced criteria with no problems,” Washburn said. “We have 10 people that would qualify for free lunch with no problem.”

Washburn also said that he thinks the district needs to implement the program, but said it should be done slowly.

“The cost to the district can be contained if we do it slowly. I don’t think it can be contained if we bring seven schools online all at once.” He said he is cognizant of delving into the program without creating an expense the district cannot absorb.

“I don’t want to put anymore salad on June (Gladney) or anyone at the downtown office,” Washburn said. He continued by saying that he feels the program is workable at a site level, with a nominal amount of district support.

Assistant Superintendent Paula Dean said the program would benefit the PTAs and PTOs that provide lunch to students that can’t afford it.

Washburn agreed, saying that he doesn’t want the lunch program driven by PTA support.

“I think it’s going to be a whole lot of hard work, but work that needs to be done,” he said.     

Superintendent Gene Schmidt said if the board chose to pilot the program for the rest of the year at Mountain, it would be possible to use that school as a learning tool. Ultimately, Mountain would be used to lay the groundwork for implementing the program district-wide.

“This is an opportunity that’s potentially good for the kids,” Schmidt said.

The program is set begin at Mountain at the beginning of 2012. Washburn has been directed to report back to the board and let them know how things go in January and February.

He is also required to provide information such as a cost analysis and how many students are participating.