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Eating their way through summer

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune | Corbin Jensen, 4, of Central Point, enjoys an orange Monday at Central Point Elementary School.
Central Point and other local school districts launch free summer meals programs for kids

Fajitas, chicken strips, hot dogs and good old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ordinarily wouldn’t have anything in common unless you went to a family-style buffet restaurant.

But those items and more make up the menu this summer at Central Point schools, serving kids ages 1-18 until Aug. 26 as part of a seasonal free meals program.

“This is a great opportunity for us to serve meals to anyone, but it’s really to help support our families, who maybe struggle with a household food budget or just don’t have access to good, healthy food,” said Anne Leavens, nutrition supervisor for the Central Point School District for the past decade.

The program’s Monday launch came as the nonprofit organization Feeding America reported that summer is “the hungriest season of the year” for some 22 million kids whose families cannot always afford a meal.

Other school districts in the Rogue Valley, including Medford, already began their summer meal programs, starting with Jackson Elementary School June 13. Several other schools in Medford begin the program June 21.

For Central Point schools, 2022 is the first time since before the pandemic that the free summer meal program is operating inside cafeterias, according to Leavens. While she is not sure what that will mean for the success of the program this year, Leavens said she is hopeful the district will see plenty of families who need to take advantage of the free food. She urged them to come as often as possible.

“Every day, we’re guessing how much food to prepare,” Leavens said. “We’re … hoping that we have consistent participation and repeat customers to help maintain what level of food we need to be preparing.”

She often hears people say they don’t want to eat free summer meals for fear they’d be taking from “other families who might need it more.”

“No one needs to worry about that; we’re there for anyone who walks through that door, so there’s no reason to be hesitant in participating in the program,” Leavens said.

Laurie Moore’s foster family was not hesitant when they showed up at Central Point Elementary School during Monday’s lunch hour. The kids feasted on a calzone, with milk, salad and assorted fruits and vegetables, including grapes and celery.

Moore has taken her foster kids, ages 3 to 11, to the elementary school for the free meals program for three summers now. This year, they plan to show up every day it is available.

“It’s quite expensive to feed nine kids every day,” Moore said, calling the program a “major” help in her day-to-day life. “It helps a lot. And then, it gets the kids out of the house and gives them something to look forward to every day.”

Moore added of her kids: “They love coming here,” and they do a pretty good job cleaning their plates.

“They try it. They’re pretty good at getting what they like and trying new stuff,” she said.

Moore’s son, Izaiah, ate a deli sandwich, grapes and chocolate milk at the elementary school. He said “thank you” to the district employees who put on the free summer meals program.

At another table in the elementary school’s cafeteria sat Brooke Goodson, the mother of two youngsters who happily ate a calzone and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“It (free meals) is pretty amazing, given everything else going on in the world. It’s really nice to have that opportunity to take the edge off a little bit,” Goodson said.

“The edge” she referred to is inflation. More often than not, the family grocery bill can be upward of $600 per month, even when spending conservatively, according to Goodson.

While the program helps the family save on bills, it actually is helpful to Goodson’s family life.

“You can kind of take a breath for a meal or two when you know it’s going to be provided by someone,” she said. “Our kids are more likely to eat food when it’s made by someone else anyway.”

Another parent, Cassie Jensen, spoke as she tried to convince her son to eat celery dipped in ranch dressing. Jensen noted how she familiarized herself with the free meals program last year, which at that time was curbside delivery only.

“It’s nice to be able to come inside, get away from the heat,” Jensen said. “They can see it. I think before, it was just kind of in the bag. Now, they actually can be a little bit more involved in the process.”

Jensen likes the options the school gives kids during the free summer meal program.

“It keeps them healthy. I think what’s hard is fast food is convenient, and it’s obviously not a healthy choice. This gives them a variety, and we know that they’re getting the nutrition that they need, so it’s perfect,” she said.

Kids can eat breakfast and lunch at three Central Point schools: Crater High, Central Point Elementary and Patrick Elementary. They also can get lunch at two community spots: Don Jones Water Park, 223 W. Vilas Road, and Rainey’s Market, 4865 Highway 234, White City.

Central Point Elementary and Patrick Elementary both will offer breakfast from 8:10 to 9 a.m., while Crater High School will offer the morning meal from 7:45 to 9 a.m.

Lunch at will be served at all three schools Monday through Thursday from 11:50 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

At the water park, lunch will be served from 11:40 a.m. to 12:05 p.m. and at the market from 12:20 to 12:40 p.m.

Phoenix-Talent School District will offer a summer meal program at the following dates, times and locations:

Phoenix Elementary School, 215 N. Rose St., Phoenix: Monday-Friday, June 20-Aug. 18. Breakfast, 7:45-8:15 a.m.; lunch, noon to 12:30 p.m.

Talent Middle School, 102 Christian Ave., Talent: Monday-Thursday, June 27-Aug. 12. Breakfast, 7:45-8:15 a.m.; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Medford School District will serve free meals Monday through Friday, with breakfast 8-8:30 a.m. and lunch 11:15-11:45 a.m.

Jackson Elementary School will serve breakfast and lunch June 13-Aug. 18

Howard Elementary School will serve breakfast and lunch June 21-Aug. 11.

Oak Grove Elementary will serve breakfast and lunch June 21-Aug. 11.

Ashland School District does not have a free summer meal program due to lack of free and reduced meal status. Christina Lehman, director of nutrition services for the district, said officials would love to have such a program, however.

Eagle Point and Rogue River school districts offer free meals to any student enrolled in summer school programs as long as they are younger than 18.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.