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School Nutrition Matters in Buncombe County

By Cindy McMahon

School lunches get a bad rap. But can you imagine if it were your responsibility to make sure that over 24,000 students get a healthy breakfast and lunch five days a week so they can focus on learning? It’s a big job, and one of the most important in our school system.

The School Nutrition program was a recurring theme at our June 1 Board of Education meeting, beginning with Dr. Tony Baldwin’s Superintendent’s comments. Dr. Baldwin reminded us that when the school year nears its close, principals become more concerned about unpaid lunch debts and seek ways to help families remember to pay off these balances before the end of school. These debts can truly add up in a school system as large as ours: as of June 1, the total unpaid meal debt district-wide was $42,459.

The principal at Haw Creek Elementary recently announced that in order to participate in Field Day, students must have paid off any balance in the cafeteria. This announcement led to controversy, and the principal and parents worked together to make sure all students could participate in Field Day after all. Dr. Baldwin addressed this situation directly, saying “I believe that I speak strongly for this board and our district that we must identify strategies to recover the unpaid meal debt that do not put students in the middle.” He went on to point out “the significant amount of time and effort our principals and staff spends to contact parents regarding this legal debt,” including helping families complete the necessary paperwork to receive free or reduced price meals. Dr. Baldwin also thanked the many nonprofit organizations and churches that help our families in need.

School Nutrition next came up during the Good News portion of the School Board meeting, with the announcement of several awards. First, it was announced that four elementary schools in Buncombe County earned the School Nutrition Golden Key Achievement Award; winners were Barnardsville, Leicester, Estes, and Weaverville Elementary Schools. This is a state award designed to recognize great accomplishments in a single school cafeteria. It honors nutrition programs that maintain high quality and align with USDA standards and professional development for cafeteria staff.

Next, Director of Child Nutrition Lisa Payne informed the Board that the USDA recently announced its gold and silver “Turnip the Beet” winners, national recognition for programs that offer healthy meals during the summer months and go above and beyond to ensure their meals are both nutritious and appetizing. Only 41 programs across the country received this award, and Buncombe County was one of only ten in the nation recognized at the “Gold” level of excellence.

Free summer meals will be available at 20 sites in Buncombe County this year, including Spruce Hill Apartments in the Reynolds District, where they will offer lunches from 12:15-1 pm Monday through Friday. “Buncombe County Schools is excited to begin our summer feeding program June 14, 2017,” Payne said. “We are proud to partner with our community and state partners to ensure that no child in Buncombe County is hungry. Feeding children in the summer helps to guarantee that they return to our school system nutritionally sound and ready to learn.” Thanks to the No Kid Hungry free texting service, anyone interested may text “Food” to 877-877 to receive a return text with information about Summer Meal sites nearby. Please help get the word out about this vital program!

Finally, during the Action portion of the agenda, the Board of Education voted to increase lunch fees by ten cents for the 2017–18 school year. This brings the full-pay price to $2.45 at the elementary level and $2.75 or $3.20 (for “extreme meals”) at our middle and high schools. This increase was necessitated by the USDA, which requires school nutrition programs to generate enough revenue to pay their costs. Free breakfast will still be offered to all students across Buncombe County, and reduced price lunches will remain at $0.40.

Cindy McMahon is the Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board. Contact: cindy.mcmahon@bcsemail.edu.