This district is all-in on school meals

It’s a tough time to be an educator in Oklahoma. Between low teacher pay, stretched support staff, and the deepest per pupil funding cuts in the country, there’s little wonder morale is low. At the same time, Oklahoma’s already-high poverty rate ticked up this year, and more than one in four Oklahoma kids are at risk of hunger. But a rare bright spot for Oklahoma schools is the opportunity to combat child hunger through their nutrition programs, and one district in southeastern Oklahoma has gone all in.

Jason Lindley is the superintendent of Hartshorne Public Schools, a three-school district a few miles east of McAlester. Lindley found that with a combination of programs, Hartshorne could ensure three meals a day for all students. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows districts like Hartshorne to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge, and moving breakfast into the classroom maximizes participation in the first meal of the day. Serving an afterschool meal — also at no charge — ensures kids have something to eat before they go home, where food might not be available. We talked with Lindley on why Hartshorne chose these programs, how the community responded, and the effects on his district.

Why make these changes?

For Hartshorne, opting into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) was an easy choice. Through this optional program, participating schools can offer free meals to all students. Instead of charging the students themselves, schools are reimbursed by the USDA based on the percentage of students identified as at risk for hunger. In an effort to avoid lunch-shaming, Hartshorne wasn’t denying students lunches if they didn’t have money to pay for them, but this meant that the district was racking up thousands of dollars in unpaid meal debt every year. Switching to universal free meals, Lindley says, was a way to get meals to more students without incurring that kind of debt.

Switching to CEP also guaranteed more kids could eat breakfast. Previously, Lindley says, students who needed breakfast had to arrive early, and eating breakfast in the cafeteria before class was isolating and stigmatizing. Lindley found that making breakfast free, universal, and served in the classroom after the bell was the best way to ensure students could get the meal they needed. Adding an afternoon meal during an end-of-day study hall guarantees an additional meal (“Kids love that, an extra meal before they go home”). Furthermore, because afternoon meals are funded at a higher rate, they bring more federal dollars into Hartshorne’s child nutrition program. 

It’s also a health issue, Lindley says. Hunger and poor nutrition can have lasting effects. School meals have to follow strict nutritional guidelines, unlike food purchased from Sonic, Dollar General, and other popular afterschool snack options in Hartshorne.

How has the community responded?

When the district announced the new school meals changes, the decision received some pushback from both staff and the community. Teachers were understandably concerned about moving meals into their classrooms — as Lindley phrased it, “We had some teachers who lost their minds the minute we mentioned it” — but they came around over time.

Meanwhile, some parents and community members argued that it wasn’t the school’s job to take on feeding students. Lindley vehemently disagrees; instead, he believes that it’s integral part of being an educator. “[Some] parents say they don’t need help — they have the money and the time,” he said. “But they don’t realize there are kids whose mom and dad struggle, whether it’s personal drive or bad luck. We have a chance to change outcomes based on their education. I have to provide everything I can to make that educational process better.” 

Although debates about topics like school meals and other federal nutrition programs can be ideological, Lindley says such labels are irrelevant: “We have a problem in Oklahoma… A lot of kids in this state go hungry. If you can do things to help your kids out, it’s your responsibility, regardless of your personal or political views.”

What effects have these changes had?

[pullquote]“We have a problem in Oklahoma… A lot of kids in this state go hungry. If you can do things to help your kids out, it’s your responsibility, regardless of your personal or political views.”[/pullquote]

At Hartshorne, the benefits were immediately apparent in classrooms: “I had a principal say, ‘I know it’s early [in the year], but I’m not having the afternoon discipline issues I was having before.’” Hungry kids typically can’t perform as well as their peers, and the misbehavior associated with hunger damages not just their learning but the learning of students around them. Conversely, increasing access to meals means “more instruction and less distraction even for the kids who weren’t getting in trouble, but were in class with students who were.” This in turn frees up more time and attention for teachers and administrators, who now deal with fewer discipline issues and hunger-related “tummy aches and headaches.”

This isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges at the beginning. For Hartshorne, bringing meals for every student into classrooms meant they needed more ice chests and coolers. Hartshorne hired three more cooks when administrators realized the kitchen staff they already had were working untenable hours to prepare and deliver three meals every day. They also hired two additional janitors. In addition, the new federal funds brought in by increasing participation have allowed Hartshorne to update school kitchens and cafeterias, something they previously couldn’t afford.

Choosing CEP can affect state education funding for districts, but Lindley has done his research and says he isn’t concerned. “If the numbers are significantly financially different” than expected, he says, “we’ll have to look at other options. But we wanted to take the chance because it’ll help kids.”

Schools interested in Breakfast in the Classroom may be eligible for grant funding to cover start-up costs. Please contact OK Policy for more information. 

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Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

One thought on “This district is all-in on school meals

  1. Well done Hartshorne! I am in total agreement with the statement about helping kids,it being a responsibility. The children today are our future leaders! Thank you for caring.
    Georgia Jarvis

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