School meals

Fifth graders Aurora Stiles and Kate Ryan along with fourth grader Evelyn Klein enjoy their lunch while talking with friends in 2017 at Moran Elementary School. The school district has announced that all students, whether in virtual or in-person classes, will be able to get school breakfast and lunches through the end of the year.

Wes Clarke is happy.

Clarke, food services director for Teton County School District No. 1, got word last week that the district had been approved for funding that allows it to offer breakfast and lunch every school day to any kid in Teton County under the age of 19. Instead of cooks needing to parse which kids are in free and reduced lunch programs, students can simply walk into the cafeteria and eat.

“That just basically just took away a barrier to entry,” Clarke said.

Feeding every kid isn’t entirely new. The district has participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program for years, which allows it to feed any hungry kid during summer months.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March the federal agency extended waivers so districts participating in the program could offer free meals while kids were learning virtually. That enabled Clarke to create the meal delivery program that ran all spring.

Now the federal funding has been extended through Aug. 31. Because it covers every kid, even students who have chosen to learn virtually for the first semester are eligible, and they or their parents can pick up both breakfast and lunch at Jackson Hole High School.

It covers every school in the district, though Kelly and Moran elementary schools don’t have kitchens, so Clarke has to improvise.

“If they want it, then we’re going to work on logistically how we are going to do it out there,” he said.

Feeding every kid is actually easier for Clarke than how things work under normal circumstances. Usually he has to track whether students eat free meals, have reduced prices or pay the full amount. That creates an administrative headache.

Clarke and others who work against food insecurity also understand that being identified as needing food assistance can be tough for students.

“Making sure kids are fed in a format where they don’t feel judged or don’t feel discriminated against because they’re identified as support kids is crucial,” said Trista Ostrom, chief of staff to First Lady Jennie Gordon.

Gordon’s chief program as first lady has been the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, which seeks to empower and support organizations that feed people. School meals have not been the focus of that push, Ostrom said, but Gordon has supported schools during the pandemic to make sure everyone is being fed.

Working with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Gordon pushed for the waivers to help schools feed children during the pandemic. That behind-the-scenes assistance helped schools deliver 1.5 million meals this summer.

“That’s a lot for our state,” Ostrom said.

With food service directors like Clarke opting into the funding for at least the fall, the meals will continue to be available at least for the first semester. The USDA said on its website that it will consider extending the funding should Congress allocate money for it.

If that happens Clarke will reapply. Because the program is both easier on food service programs and open to more children, he doesn’t see any reason not to.

“There are people who are telling me that they’re not going to do this,” he said. “I just shake my head. It honestly makes it so much easier, and it’s so much better for the kids.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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