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Schools want more diners

Langley Middle School’s Cyndi Fairbrook serves lunch to some eighth-grade students at Langley Middle School this week. - Gayle Saran / staff photos
Langley Middle School’s Cyndi Fairbrook serves lunch to some eighth-grade students at Langley Middle School this week.
— image credit: Gayle Saran / staff photos

By GAYLE SARAN

Staff reporter

A trip through the lunch line at Langley Middle School is more like a visit to a buffet restaurant.

Gone are the days when school cafeterias offered one selection each day, like turkey tetrazini and cinammon rolls on Wednesday or pizza on Friday.

Today, students get a variety of menu selections at South Whidbey schools. This Thursday, the menu at LMS and South Whidbey High School offered cheeseburgers, chickenburgers, rice bowls, egg rolls and a well-stocked salad and fruit bar.

The selection is there to increase demand for school lunches. This year, the school district is serving more students who need low-cost meals due to job losses in their families, and is hoping to bring more full-price students to the table for school meals.

Langley Middle School chef Mary Ann Fleming has seen tastes change during her 12-year career with the district.

“Today, kids like quick food they can grab and go,” she said.

Fleming admits it’s hard to predict what the majority will prefer on any given day. But so far, cafeteria staff seem to have a pretty good idea.

“We seem to be able to prepare just about the right amount without too much waste,” she said.

School food isn’t just for lunch anymore. South Whidbey schools have expanded their food service to include breakfast, served before the first class of the day at all district schools.

Though not as popular as lunch, school breakfasts are still a draw for about 60 kids each day at LMS. Bagel and cream cheese breakfast sandwiches, granola bars and juice make up the breakfast fare. It’s basic, but it does the job.

“Breakfast choices, though not as many as for lunch, are enough to get students going for the day,” Fleming said.

Since the food is there, district officials would like to see more students participating in its meal program.

Traditionally, the schools’ hot lunch program is not self-supporting, even with state and federal funding for free- and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch programs. But it is a necessary expense, and one the schools would happily put more money into if the demand is there.

“Offering our students well-rounded meals is an important part of education,” said Mike Moore, the district’s business manager. “Hungry students won’t succeed academically.”

Still, with the district’s ongoing budget crisis, the food service program is currently under review. The total food service budget for 2002-03 is $406,000, about $44,000 short of breaking even. Levy funding typically picks up the shortfall.

Rick Pitt, facilities manager for the district, wants to see that shortfall disappear.

“We are looking for ways to break even,” Pitt said.

Helping Pitt with the project is Gene White, a former food service auditor and nutrition specialist with the state Office of Public Instruction. White, a Clinton resident, has donated her services to the district for this project.

“We are very fortunate to have her expertise. She is a real trooper,” Pitt said.

A final report is expected in March.

Pitt said the review process includes improving student participation, getting the word out about the free- and reduced-cost program and finding less-expensive suppliers.

South Whidbey students receiving free or reduced meals has increased about 30 percent since last year. The district reports 419 students in the four schools currently receiving free- and reduced-cost meals, compared with 318 last year. Total enrollment this year is 2,159, about 30 less than last year.

This translates to 249 families qualifying for the program this year compared to 178 families last year. Between September and December 2002, 6,215 free and reduced meals were served, compared with 5,090 for the same period in 2001.

“It is understandable why these numbers are up, with the layoffs occurring in the area,” Pitt said. “We hope we are reaching everyone who is qualified for this program.”

Applications for the program can be picked up at any school or the district office.

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