Free meal program continues

Iola schools will continue a program that offers free meals to all students, regardless of income. More students ate meals last year and administrators saw several benefits.

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Local News

June 11, 2024 - 3:14 PM

USD 257 Food Services Director Staci Talkington addresses the school board. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Iola students can continue to eat free school meals next year. 

USD 257 school board members approved a request from Staci Talkington, food service director, to continue the free meal program.

“Last year, I wasn’t sure I was for it,” Talkington said. “But I’ve seen a difference.”

More students ate school meals this past year. Before the free meal program, 37% of students ate breakfast and 52% had lunch. By the end of the school year, 41% of students were eating breakfast and 59% had lunch.

“I think numbers will continue to go up,” Talkington said.

She noted it has taken time to educate students and families about the free meal program. She cited an example of a student whose family couldn’t afford the cost of meals. It took months for staff to convince the student that it was OK to eat meals at school, and their family would not be charged.

A school nurse and secretary offered examples of students who complain about a headache. Often, that student is going hungry. They give them a meal and the problem is often resolved. 

Student debt also has been reduced by half. Before switching to the free meals program, the district had about $6,700 in student debt from past-due meal costs and various fees such as for textbooks. Local businesses donated $3,400 to offset the cost for seniors so they could graduate.

This year, the district had $3,400 in student debt from textbook fees and the like, and received $600 in donations, mostly to allow seniors to graduate.

The free meal program hasn’t cost the district any additional money, Talkington said. As long as the district meets certain criteria, the program is paid by the Community Eligiblity Provision, a federal program through the USDA. 

The school board approved continuation of the free meal program, though board member Tony Leavitt asked what is being done to improve meal quality. Federal nutrition guidelines limit what food service provider OPAA! can make. Superintendent Stacey Fager said Talkington and OPAA! staff seek waivers when possible and offer options that are more likely to appeal to students. 

ADULT MEAL prices, though, will be increased. The free meal program doesn’t apply to faculty, staff or visiting adults such as parents, grandparents and guardians. 

The cost for breakfast will increase by 5 cents to $3.20. Lunch prices will jump significantly, from $4.65 to $5.10.

Memorial garden at IES

School board members approved spending up to $15,000 for a memorial garden at Iola Elementary School.

Audrey Gardner, a beloved fourth grade teacher, died unexpectedly in December 2018. Her family donated $4,700 for a memorial garden in her honor. Her brother is working with landscaping companies in the Kansas City area to offer discounted trees, shrubs and stones. 

When IES was built, plans included an area between the second/third grade wing and the fourth/fifth grade wing for a future memorial garden. Principal Andy Gottlob outlined possible design options and costs. Some costs, such as for cement, are not yet known. He estimated a cost of $15,838, plus expenses for cement, which likely would add thousands of dollars to the cost. He said plans could be scaled back to fit the district’s budget. The Gardner family’s $4,700 donation will be in addition to the $15,000 limit approved by the board.

In addition to honoring Gardner’s memory, the garden would include space for plaques that could be used to honor teachers or students who may pass away in the future, or perhaps to recognize teachers who have retired. 

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