SAN AUGUSTINE, TX (KTRE) - Students at San Augustine Independent School District are now getting their lunch for free. The district has signed up for a federally assisted meal program called the "National School Lunch Program" that allows them to provide free lunches to every single student.
"We have a very, very high percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Our economic disadvantaged percentage is 92 percent of our campus," said Tim Little, the principal at San Augustine High School.
About 80 percent of the kids at the elementary school, and 45 percent of students at the high school qualified for free reduced lunches last year, Little said, which is a reason why they decided to do the program this school year.
"Now, that's a little different than our economically disadvantaged, and it shows a gap in the kids who would be eligible or very close to be eligible for free reduced lunch, either not turning in the paperwork to qualify, or they are just missing the cut off lines," Little said.
The program allows the district to provide free lunches that meet Federal requirements, and in exchange, get reimbursed in subsidies and USDA foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for each meal that is served, according to the USDA website.
"We can do this new program where they will take our percentage of free reduced lunch and take our total lunches served and reimburse us on a percentage based on our percentage in the past," Little said. "We've chosen to go that route. It doesn't provide us any more funding. Our cafeteria is still being funded at the same level that they were last year, but it does allow us to offer the free lunches to all the kids and that allows us to catch those kids who probably qualify or are very near qualifying, but we're not catching right now."
The kids were surprised their lunches were free this year, Little said. He said so far, the program has been received positively in the community. He said the Food Services Director, Mary Johnson, was the person that pushed for the program.
"It was a lot of work on her part to apply for this and to do the work to make this happen. She did that all on her own," Little said. "It was something that she wanted to bring to the district, and she brought it to us and said it was something she was going to work towards doing this year."
However, there are several challenges. Right now, the district is trying real hard to pick foods that are going to be well received by the kids, Little said.
"It's a real challenge. Middle school and high school kids can be very, very picky. And, of course, the federal guidelines on what we have to serve are very rigid, and we have very specific ways we have to construct the meal offerings," Little said.
However, they are trying new menu items including Hispanic and Asian food items that the kids are enjoying, he said.
"It's never 100 percent because when you have to put four different things on the tray, and it has to be the same four things for every kid. You're never going to get 100 percent. You will see the food in the trash because we do have to serve food to the kids that they are just not eating," Little said.
Yet, the kids do have some options and can continue to pay for snack bar items like wings, chicken nuggets, and pizza if they choose.
"The kids were surprised, and the ones who had been paying didn't have to pay. But it's been very positively received. The community has received it very positively. It's not changing what we're doing in the cafeteria," Little said. "We're still serving the same kinds of meals that we were before. There hasn't been a change in the quality of the meal. They are exactly what we served last year other than the menu modifications we made to try to find things that the kids want to eat."