ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
Throughout Southwest Kansas, school has ended for the year, and summertime will soon be here.
Among the many needs young people have during the summer is food, and for several years, USD No. 483 has provided a summer meal program for its students.
This year’s program will officially kick off next Tuesday with lunch being served from 11 to 11:30 a.m. at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Plains and noon to 12:30 p.m. at the Kismet Pavilion. The dates lunches will be served at those sites are from May 30 to June 20 and July 10 through July 28.
Through the summer meals program, breakfast will be served from 8:45 to 9 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from June 6 through 29 and July 11 through 27 in the Southwestern Heights Junior High commons area.
USD 483 school nurse Norma Sanchez said food service workers will be given a break during the week of the Fourth of July, and she said breakfast is primarily served for youth in Southwestern Heights’ summer weight program.
“Once they’re done doing their workout, they have a hot breakfast ready for them to go as they leave the door,” she said. “I wouldn’t call it a reward system, but if you come work out, we’ll feed you. That has gone over really well. Anything we can do to help increase our numbers of participation in summer weights, we try to do that, but also, we want to make sure kids are getting nutrients.”
Sanchez said there was a bit of a delay in planning for this year’s program, as district officials were waiting on USDA to announce this year’s rules and regulations, something she said is the norm for meal programs such as USD 483’s
“Every year, we’re waiting on the final say,” she said. “We are conditioning back to congregate, which means the students have to sit there and eat the meals. They can’t take their sack lunch and go home with it. COVID changed that. COVID changed it to where it was grab and go. You grab your lunch, and you go home. That was to the risk of spreading infection.”
Sanchez said with the COVID-19 pandemic now a thing of the past, students once again have options for their meals.
“Last year, we did go ahead and do grab and go,” she said. “This year, we didn’t know if they were going to allow us to do grab and go or if we were going to have to go back to congregate.”
Sanchez said the congregate method is a little more difficult because children have to stay in the facility where the meals are served and eat their meals.
“They can’t take any home, which means we have to watch them,” she said. “We have to monitor them. We have extra cleanup after them, more use of resources as far as our disposables and the building. Although it’s a good thing, it also comes with more work.”
So before plans were finalized for this year’s summer meals program, Sanchez said district officials were waiting to see what USDA would decide as to whether both options would be available.
“They have gone back to congregate except for rural areas,” she said. “We fall into that rural area category, so we are going to be allowed, for this year at least, to do grab and go. We’re glad for that, that they can take their meals and eat. Not all kids eat at the same time.”
Sanchez said having grab and go in place allows older students to pick up meals for siblings.
“We were happy to hear the good news for us,” she said. “I don’t know how long that’ll last, but we’ll take it for now.”
Sanchez said, though, students still have the option to eat meals at the sites they are served.
“We don’t have any issues with that,” she said. “They do have to still fall into that 30-minute timeframe. If they want to sit there eat because they don’t have any other place to go, they certainly can do that, but they have to do that with in that timeframe. They can’t stay over and linger afterwards. They have to eat their meal and get going. We are structured in that we have to stay on time, but other than that, if our kids need a place to go and eat, we can certainly provide that. Our facilities will allow that. That’s not a problem.”
Sanchez said there has been some improvement in USD 483’s socioeconomic status since the pandemic ended.
“I would say our families are returning to work,” she said. “Our families are returning to structured schedules. Our families have had to return to paying for their school lunches, and that was challenging at first.”
Through COVID, Sanchez said 483 provided free lunches at school, and once the pandemic ended, paid lunches once again became the norm. She said this was a challenge for some families at first, but once those families got back into the routine of paying for lunches, it has now become a way of life.
“I feel we have jobs,” she said. “I feel we have great things in our community. We’re limited, but we have great programs. We do have a grocery store in town now. That has helped as far as providing families food. We are seeing an improvement. It’s a slow improvement, but it’s a steady improvement with the socioeconomics of our community.”
USD 483 serves not only the towns of Kismet and Plains, but considerable rural areas of both Seward County and Meade County. While serving youth who live in town is somewhat easy, Sanchez said she has high concern about the inability to provide food to students in the country.
“It’s always been heavy on my heart knowing there’s kids who live way out in the country who can’t access our meals,” she said. “We still haven’t figured out a way to deal with that, but I’m always looking for suggestions on that.”
As for serving two communities, Sanchez said this has become a way of life.
“For us, we don’t know any different because that’s the children we serve anyway through school,” she said. “That’s not the issue. We’ve grown accustom to traveling. We’ve grown accustom to serving both towns. We would never keep one community out of that. Our population, our school, our students, our classrooms are combined areas.”
Sanchez said this is less of a stressor than not being able to serve young people in Hayne and other rural parts of the district.
“That’s really a struggle,” she said. “Those kids are often home. Parents are working. They don’t have rides. It’s too far for them to travel in to get that meal. There’s a lot of hangups with that. We still haven’t quite figured out how we can help that situation.”
Sanchez said the primary reason USD 483 has a summer meals program is that many families have both parents working, with many commuting to either Liberal or Meade, leaving children to fend for themselves for food.
“Our parents, we have an expectation for them,” she said. “They work and help provide for their family. That comes with a little bit of baggage sometimes. The children do have to fend for themselves, and oftentimes, it’s not a matter of not having food in the house. It’s a matter of having unbalanced meals.”
Sanchez said this often leads to kids grabbing food such as chips and cereal, as well as unhealthy food, because it is quick and easy to fix. On the other hand, she said the meals served as part of the summer meals program are not only nutritious, but tasty.
“Our cafeteria ladies do an amazing job of putting together well balanced, wholesome meals,” she said. “It’s fresh fruit. It’s fresh veggies, hot meals. The ladies who do our summer food program are our lunch ladies, so there’s a familiar face there. They know the students. They know their likes. They know their dislikes. They know what they’ll eat. They know what they won’t eat, and they cater to that. They have a lot of pride in their work.”
Sanchez said this pride shows when kids come and want to eat the food served as part of the program.
“They want to see that familiar face,” she said. “It hits all kinds of aspects. It hits the familiarity of the people in the community. It hits a lot of things I think are great positive things to have in our kids’ lives.”
Sanchez said with each passing year, she wonders about many things such as possible changes in location and adding more locations and even questioning the necessity of the program, but she said each time, she finds evidence that it is working.
“Every year, I always hear stories from somebody, either a parent or a student, that makes me realize it is important, we do need it, there are families who utilize it, there are kids who, if we didn’t have it, might not have a meal,” she said. “Even if it’s just a few kids, that makes it worth it because we know those kids are getting that meal they need. For us, the efforts are worth it. The work is worth it. The kids are receptive. The parents are receptive. The community is receptive, so I feel in all senses, for me, it’s worth it.”
“We both get our e-mails through our phone, and we constantly check that,” Sanchez said. “If people need more information, they can certainly e-mail us, and we will get that information right to them. We are also in the process of sending it out through all of our social media outlets, through our Web sites. I have printed out flyers. I’m going to hang all those up. Word of mouth, e-mails, texts, it’s going out to the masses. The kids have that information before they leave school.”