School program feeds kids, with no questions about need

From left to right, Lance, 7, Nick, 8, and Wesly, 9, enjoy lunch provided by the program Friday. The Boys and Girls Club requested that their last names not be given. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

From left to right, Lance, 7, Nick, 8, and Wesly, 9, enjoy lunch provided by the program Friday. The Boys and Girls Club requested that their last names not be given. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

KINGMAN - Thousands of children are getting a helping hand during mealtime this summer.

Whether they need it or not is anybody's guess.

The Kingman Unified School Districts' Summer Food Service Program provides free meals to children from birth to age 18 and meals to adults at $3.50 with no questions asked about income, enrollment or even citizenship.

"Food is in while school is out," said KUSD Food Service Coordinator Paula Loomis. She's been with the district food program for 29 years and will be retiring this year. She and her replacement, former KHS culinary teacher Alex Mayo, gave insight to the program.

This is the fourth year the district has offered summer meals. They usually accommodate summer school students but also branch out to other youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club of Kingman.

The Arizona Department of Education contacted Loomis and asked if the district wanted to participate. She attended training on nutrition, record keeping and promotion in Phoenix and realized that the program was feasible. So far, it's been going well.

"Plenty of parents appreciate this," Loomis said. "They're having a hard time for whatever reason and their kids wouldn't be eating otherwise."

During the school year, breakfast and lunch are offered at all elementary school campuses, Kingman Middle School, White Cliffs Middle School and Mt. Tipton in Dolan Springs. Students can pay daily, weekly or up to 30 days in advance for breakfast and lunch.

Meals cost between $1 and $2.75 for elementary and middle school students. The high schools prepare their own food and meals cost $3 per student.

The summer program is slightly more complicated and feeds more than just school kids.

"We had a woman who was babysitting one time and came in," Loomis said. "She brought 12 kids and we fed them."

From 450 to 500 meals with federally mandated nutrition guidelines are prepared Monday through Friday at the KUSD central kitchen. "Uncrustable" sack lunches (peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, fresh veggies, fruit and milk) are available as a backup should regular menu items run out.

The cost of preparing the meal itself is about $3. They're the same meals provided during the regular school year. Kitchens and serving lines are set up at the elementary schools. Styrofoam clamshell containers are sent to Mohave Garden Apartments and the Boys and Girls Club downtown.

Uneaten food does not go to waste and further contributes to the less fortunate.

"Most meals are consumed. However, we do have some that are not eaten," Loomis said. "We give any uneaten lunches to Cornerstone Mission. They serve around 70 each night."

"That what helps us assist us in what we do," said Melanie Windecker, administrator at Cornerstone Mission. "Whatever didn't get eaten that day gets cycled into our meals. Without that support, it would greatly impact our budget. Paula has been a blessing."

5,578 children received free meals as of June 17, an average of 429 per day. The district gets reimbursed for those meals from the Arizona Department of Education through federal funding.

Adult meals do not get reimbursed. The money they pay goes back into the KUSD food service program covering food, kitchen supplies and payroll.

"We have very few adults eat, so the money doesn't equate to much," Loomis said.

During the regular school year, reduced-rate and free meal programs based on family income are available to children at the district. A Families in Transition program covers children of homeless families.

A weekly Direct Certification import from the ADE gives the district a list of students who are directly certified (meaning free with no application required) to receive low cost meals. Typically those students are foster children or live in homes that receive SNAP or TANF benefits from the state.

71 percent of the meals served during the 2015-16 school year were part of the free and reduced-meal programs.

10,458 meals were served in 42 days in the summer of 2015.

Those numbers have brewed concern over the "no questions asked' policy."

"I believe that there should be a system of financial evaluation for the meals program and other programs," said Kingman resident and attorney Richard Basinger. "However, I do believe that we do have serious economic issues in this area and where a true need exists and funds are available, we should help."

"I do have a fundamental issue where parents smoke, drink and use drugs and/or won't work, and then claim poverty," he said. "Overall, I am what would be considered a social conservative, but also a caring and compassionate person as to helping people help themselves but assure food, clothing, shelter and medical care with responsibility."

The opposition doesn't bother Loomis.

"They're children. Is it their fault?" she asked. "I'm here to feed kids. No child should go hungry. We have service with a smile at KUSD."

The meal program is almost over at most schools. So far it will continue next year and new food service coordinator Mayo has no plans to change it anytime soon: "If it's not broken, I'm not going to try to fix it."