LiveWell Northwest Colorado: There is such a thing as a free lunch |

LiveWell Northwest Colorado: There is such a thing as a free lunch

Barb Parnell/For Steamboat Today

When was the last time you had a school lunch? I have memories of “mystery” meats, gloppy potatoes and jello — not super appetizing to look at or eat. That is not the experience you would have if you ate in the cafeterias of any school district in Routt County. The districts have led the state by offering scratch cooking (i.e., non-processed food) and fabulous salad bars.

Soroco has been using the cafeteria as a learning lab, complete with Go, Slow, Whoa promotions and new entrees, including Oriental chicken with brown rice, which students can taste test. At the elementary school in Hayden, students taste a fruit and vegetable each month and learn fun facts about it, and sometimes, they even see the food service director dressed up like the fruit of the month. Made-from-scratch rolls and salad bar entrees that rival restaurant menu options can be found in the Steamboat Springs cafeterias.

“Budgeting for thousands of wholesome, appetizing, kid-friendly meals on a daily basis is easily compared to a high-wire act. It requires near-microscopic focus on where every cent goes and relentless, expert balancing of the nutritional, esthetic and financial value of every single choice,” according to The Hayden, Steamboat Springs and Soroco food service directors are amazing and have the expertise to walk that tightrope.

I have heard many times, “School lunches are expensive.” The reality is that each school district must provide a lunch with five components — fruit, vegetable, grain, protein and milk — and students must take at least three of the components, one of which must be 1/2 cup of a fruit or vegetable. When was the last time you had a lunch with three to five of these components for $4 or less? Typically, 46 percent of a school meal’s cost goes to purchasing food, another 45 percent goes to labor and the remaining 9 percent goes to supplies and other costs. Hopefully, you can see what a true balancing act this is as school districts set the price of a school meal.

There is such a thing as a free school lunch. Student from families that struggle with paying for school meals may be eligible to receive a free or reduced-cost meal. Many hard-working families that may qualify opt to find a way to provide lunch for their children rather than accept assistance.

Why is important to see if your student qualifies for free/reduced meals?

• School lunches are healthy and tasty — Students can easily get two or more of the five servings of fruits and vegetables recommended each day.

• Financial support of the school meal program — For every free meal, the district is reimbursed $3.13; for reduced meals, the reimbursement is $2.73, and for full-pay meals, the reimbursement is $0.35. These federal dollars are very important to the financial success of your school’s meal program.

• Other grant opportunities for the district — The percentage of free/reduced meals the district serves impacts the amount of other grants it may qualify for.

Each District has a system in place so no one knows if you are receiving a full-pay or reduced-pay meal. So you can see it is very important that all families who may qualify for free/reduced meals do so every year and include all their children. For more information about whether your child qualifies for a free or reduced meal, visit or contact your local school district.

How do families with income restrictions provide lunch for their children in the summer? Thanks to Lift-up of Routt County, healthy lunches are provided to low-income students over the summer months through the Rocket Packet program. This summer, Rocket Packets included five days of breakfast items, such as cereals, oatmeal milk and 100 percent juice; five days of lunch items, such tuna, cheese, luncheon meat and peanut butter and jelly, along with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and five snacks, such as popcorn, fruit and granola bars. Forty-six students enjoyed these Rocket Packets for 10 weeks this summer.

Lunch is the second-most important meal of the day. Only 40 to 60 percent of the students in Routt County buy a school lunch. If you have students who are not eating school lunches, have them try one, or better yet, go and eat lunch with them.

Remember: There is such a thing as a free lunch for Routt County students, and we could be serving a lot more of them. If paying for school lunches is a struggle for your family, check out the free or reduced meal programs available at the local schools.

Barb Parnell, Ph.D., is community coordinator for LiveWell Northwest Colorado.

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