Brain Food: School meals essential to learning
VERDE VALLEY – Having students fueled with nutritious food has been shown to improve their academic success.
That’s what the superintendent of the Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District said recently.
“One of our initiatives this year was to offer a grab-and-go breakfast cart at both West Sedona Elementary and Red Rock High School in an effort to provide all students the opportunity to eat a good breakfast to get their school day off to a great start,” said Dennis Dearden, in his second year as the district’s lead.
Of the approximately 62% of students who eat school-provided meals at Sedona-Oak Creek, about 45% receive free meals, while another 13% receive reduced-cost meals.
Dearden said that Sedona-Oak Creek has “a number of students who may not receive a nutritious dinner in the evening, and the only source of a good meal that they have is at school.”
Thanks to a partnership with Sedona Community Food Bank and Yavapai Food Council, Sedona-Oak Creek also provides bags of food for some of the district’s students to have meals over the weekend.
According to an Aug. 26 press release from the Food Research Action Center – FRAC – studies show that school meals not only help reduce food insecurity, they support the healthy development of children, which positively impacts their ability to learn.
“Nutrition services provide healthy, balanced meals including breakfast and lunch for all students but most specifically for our students who are facing poverty that meet the National School Lunch Program guidelines,” said Tricia Winters, Cottonwood-Oak Creek Governing Board secretary and executive assistant to superintendent Steve King.
At Cottonwood-Oak Creek, 67.11% of students receive free or reduced-cost meals under the National School Lunch Program – NSLP. That’s 1,193 students who receive free meals and 255 students who pay a reduced rate for meals.
Although not all families can afford to pay for their lunch, all Cottonwood-Oak Creek students are able to negatively charge their meal account up to five times,” Winters said.
Once a student has negatively charged the account five times “they will be offered an alternate lunch instead of the regular lunch,” Winters said.
An alternate lunch consists of a cheese sandwich, milk, fruit and/or vegetable. The account will not be charged for this meal.
COCSD has been fortunate to have the support of the community, Winters said. “Each year, donors come forward to help cancel out student lunch accounts, for students whose families may have been struggling to even meet the reduced prices for meals.”
Cottonwood-Oak Creek recently received an anonymous $3,000 donation to help cover existing student lunch debt. The donation was used to eliminate 91 student balances in excess of $11.50.
Cottonwood-Oak Creek schools now also have sharing tables for students to place meal items they don’t wish to eat that can be shared with others. Any student can take food from those tables, Winters said.
School meals ‘incredibly important’
In August, Clarkdale-Jerome served an average of about 200 lunches per day, which Superintendent Danny Brown said “equates to approximately 41% of our total population.”
Of those meals, about 47% are free or reduced-cost. According to Brown, school meals at Clarkdale-Jerome are “incredibly important to our students, especially for those who would not normally receive a hot meal at home.”
I emphasize how important it is to each a good breakfast when before students come to school,” Brown said. “Whether it be at home or at school.”
According to the FRAC press release, when Congress returns from recess on Sept. 9, one of the bills it will likely discuss is Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).
“Food Research Action Center’s CNR priorities are intended to reduce childhood hunger, decrease childhood obesity, improve child nutrition and wellness, enhance child development and school readiness, and support academic achievement,” the press release stated.
Priorities are divided by program: school meals, summer meals, early childhood, and WIC.
According to Food Research Action Center’s most recent report on community eligibility, 28,542 schools participated in the National School Lunch Program in the 2018–2019 school year.
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