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McPherson County Schools: Creative solutions to accommodate lack of school lunch program

MAY 25, 2023-{ }McPherson County Schools has never had an approved or qualified kitchen to participate in the school hot lunch program (NTV News){p}{/p}
MAY 25, 2023- McPherson County Schools has never had an approved or qualified kitchen to participate in the school hot lunch program (NTV News)

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In Tryon, there are two buildings for the county’s K-12 grades. Their enrollment is about 56 students in total.

Multiple students go to McPherson County Schools from North Platte. It is one of the smallest public school districts in the state, and this district has never had an approved or qualified kitchen to participate in the school hot lunch program.

“Back when this building was built, it was common practice for everyone to bring their lunches, that was a way for the district to save some money as well,” said Tim Vanderheiden, McPherson County School superintendent.

Vanderheiden is finishing up his 37th year in education. He has been an administrator in elementary, middle and high school levels. He retired once and was then asked to take the hat as McPherson County Schools Superintendent.

Currently, the Junior High building has what Vanderheiden calls a ‘standard kitchen’. It has an oven, refrigerator and five microwaves. The elementary school has two to three microwaves per classroom. But the goal of the district would be to have a certified kitchen and provide free hot meals to students.

“But right now, the expenditure of remodeling our current building to put-in a certified kitchen, it’s just a little more than what we can take on and still offer the quality education we want for our kids,” Vanderheiden said.

In McPherson County students have two options: they can bring their lunches from home or buy meals at the local café across the street, Prairie Hills Café.

“It has been a great partnership”, Vanderheiden said talking about the relationship between the school and the café.

According to the superintendent, some parents rather their kids to order meals from the café. Elementary students also order from the café. Teachers help those students place their orders ahead of time every day.

A teacher would come over with a couple of older students to then take the meals to the elementary school.

“What we try to do is get everyone’s orders in the morning,” Vanderheiden said. “We have a sign-up sheet, anybody that wants to order writes-in what they want to order and their name. At 10:30 a.m., we send that over to the café so they have enough time to prepare it for us. They are really good to have it ready at lunch time.”

The café has been in Tryon since 1991. Tryon resident Shareen Munson and her husband became owners of the café in March 2020. Due to the pandemic, they closed to the public on the first week of April 2020 and were only doing take-out.

Now on school days, at 11:20 a.m. the café usually has the pre-ordered meals for the elementary school ready, and the orders for the high school are ready by 12:20 p.m. Munson said it gets busy during lunch time.

“Everybody else gets off at noon, so we try to juggle everything,” Munson said.

She said students usually don’t order the restaurant's daily specials, which have a more homemade feel, like chicken and noodle soup.

“When the students come over, they mostly order hamburgers and fries,” she said.

Munson added that the business doesn’t discount the students, and they usually spend between $7.50 to $12 for their meals.

“I really feel bad about the whole situation, because I know how it could impact some families,” Munson said. “I wish we had a way where whether a company or someone would see how they could give grants to places like this, and we could still get our $10 a meal.”

Munson said the café offers senior meals, and those are subsidized by the USDA.

“The seniors just have to pay $5. If there was a program like that, we could very easily work like that with the school system and offer that to the kids too."

McPherson County Schools offers a third option for students who can’t bring lunches or don’t have money to buy food across the street. They have snacks and easy-microwave quick meals, like mac and cheese, ramen noodles, granola bars and more.

“Plus, we purchase milk every week and is available to the kids free of charge,” Vanderheiden said.

The school had a facility planning for the whole district with community members. One of the items talked about was, ‘What would it take to have a certified kitchen?' so the school can provide free hot lunches.

Vanderheiden said lack of funds is the main issue.

“Our population is .5 people per square mile,” Vanderheiden said. “The county has estimated last year 372 people in the whole county, when you look at the cost of building and making renovations that cost goes on just a few shoulders compared to couple of other school districts that can spread that out.”

95% of the county land is grassland.

“When we put levy on it, it doesn’t get levy like other crop and irrigated lands. Our lands don’t bring in as much money. It’s a huge burden on our tax payers,” Vanderheiden said.

NTV News also spoke with Raegan Anderson, K- 12th grade special education teacher. She is also the interim music teacher, and school assessment and improvement coordinator. She has three children that go to McPherson County Schools. Her daughter will soon be a senior, her older son a junior and her youngest will be in 7th grade.

A lot of the time Anderson will prepare large meals at her home to have leftovers for school lunches. She said sometimes that’s not possible due to scheduling, resulting in her family grabbing quick-meals and there are some occasions where her family has lunches at the café across the street.

“But they [her kids] usually save that for a special occasion,” she said.

Anderson said part of the problem of the school not having a lunch program is not having the facilities for it.

“We don’t have the approved kitchen space,” Anderson said. “I know Superintendent Vanderheiden has been working to see if we could get a grant but we are just out of space honestly.”

Anderson said that for a lot of parents the situation of not having a hot lunch program has made it difficult for them to take their kids to McPherson County Schools.

“They do have to plan on ‘What do I feed my child’, ‘How will they heat it up?’” Anderson said. “I know some families in the past that have not come up here because they would had been in free and reduced lunch in other schools, so since we don’t have that option it makes it more difficult for our low-income families to make ends meet.”

Superintendent Vanderheiden said that because the school doesn't have a lunch program they can't identify the students that would qualify for free and reduced lunch, as such.

"Because of some of the requirements, we can't qualify them for free or reduced lunch unless the school qualifies for a hot lunch program," Vanderheiden explained.

Anderson said she would love to have a hot lunch program in McPherson County Schools, as it would also make things easier for her family.

“But when I compared that to the type of education my kids are getting up here, I’ll do whatever I need to make sure they are fed,” Anderson said. “My kids and all the kids here are basically getting a one-on-one teaching experience here.”

She said many families balance not having a lunch program with the personalized teaching their kids can receive at McPherson County schools.

Anderson said she would love for lawmakers to visit small schools and see the logistical struggles they have.

“There are a lot of needs for every school,” Anderson said. “Mr. Vanderheiden is trying to improve the building structure so we can add on that approved kitchen space, so we work on getting that lunch program. I would love for everyone to realize that if we want this community to grow, that’s some of the things we will need this community to do. We try to do everything we can for our students.”

A state senator that has visited the schools multiple times is Sen. Mike Jacobson (District 42) of North Platte.

“Unlike some of the major cities, there are probably kids there that qualify for free and reduced lunch, whose parents, just like my parents, wouldn’t disclose their income levels whether they would qualify for it or not,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson and Vanderheiden have had multiple conversations on possible changes in the legislature, to provide at least some ability for the school to get reimbursements.

“So, the school could pay directly to the café, which is providing students hot meals, and then the school would get reimbursed,” Jacobson said.

He said if the legislature is going to spend money across the urban areas, they also need to be doing similar things in the rural parts of Nebraska.

“We need to give kids in rural areas the same type of opportunities,” Jacobson added.

LB 99, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, was introduced this year in the Legislature. It would require public schools participating in the federal school breakfast program or the national school lunch program to offer meals at no cost to all students and submit information on the number of meals served to the state Department of Education.

Basically, the bill would require the state to reimburse schools for meal costs.

The bill also would require eligible school districts to opt-in to a federal reimbursement program, called the community eligibility provision, that allows schools with high poverty rates to serve free breakfast and lunch to their students without collecting financial information from households.

Jacobson said the bill went nowhere this year due to senators running out of time. Jacobson said he is hopeful next year they can take a deeper look into the bill.

“I really would like to see something done so they can get their piece,” Jacobson added. “I’ve also been focused a lot on the number of villages that are now in the expanded District 42, where it used to be only Lincoln County, we had a handful of villages, but now with the other five counties there’s more villages. I want to make sure that all legislation that we do makes provisions for villages to qualify for the same programs that class one, class two cities qualify as well.”

Jacobson said he wouldn’t expect LB 99 to move forward under its current terms, but he would be more focused on doing some tweaks to the existing rules that are out there to make sure that school districts like McPherson County would qualify for benefits involving hot meals.

According to Vanderheiden, there are four other schools in the state that don’t provide hot lunch program. One of those being Arthur County Schools, west of Tryon.

Jacobson said he agrees with Anderson, in that more lawmakers should visit the smallest districts.

“I completely agree with her, that’s one of the reasons why I’m looking forward to the break coming up,” Jacobson said. “I really want to spend the summer visiting not only school districts, but across District 42 to really understand all the needs we have.”

Jacobson said he plans to follow up with Vanderheiden to continue the conversation in terms of what are the federal and state requirements for the school to be reimbursed if they pay for the student's meals. He said they will brainstorm ideas on what can be done for this school’s specific situation.

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“The very thing I’m looking for is there will be dollars credited to the school district that can then be credited to each student so when they go to café, they can eat there and then they will be pay up to a certain amount on a daily or weekly basis for each child so they won’t have to reach to their pockets to buy those meals, when other kids in other school districts are getting potentially free lunches.”

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