On most days around 11 a.m., the delightful smell of food creeps down the hallways of Navasota Intermediate School.
“It always makes me hungry,” said Navasota ISD director of child nutrition Melissa Murray-Paez, as she turned into a corridor that leads directly to the cafeteria.
Inside, the cafeteria tables are topped with each teacher’s name, directing the hungry summer students where to sit. And at lunchtime, the tables fill up quickly, especially one topped with a marker that reads “public” -- a table saved for special guests the school welcomes in every summer.
“I think there is a lot of confusion that people believe only kids attending summer school can come eat, or that students that only normally attend that school can get a meal,” Murray-Paez said.
For more than 10 years, Navasota ISD has participated in a national program that provides free summer meals to children in the community that is participating in the program.
The qualifications to receive the meal are simple – the child must be under 18 years of age, and must show up at the appropriate posted serving times.
“They can come and have a hot nourishing breakfast or lunch, and also be able to take an economic burden off their parents at home,” Murray-Paez said.
Texas has been participating in the program since 1977, which receives the federal dollars from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) administers the program, and reported that schools, churches, and community centers served more than 17 million meals to children in the summer of 2008.
The program aims to serve communities that have school districts where 50 percent or more of the enrolled children qualify for a reduced lunch cost (or free lunch) during the regular school year. For this summer, the TDA is reporting that it has 4,000 active meal sites.
“For some of these parents, it’s a struggle – what are you going to feed your kids for breakfast? What are you going to feed them for lunch? If we can help them out in some way, and give them hot, healthy choices, maybe it will establish some good eating practices along the way,” Murray-Paez said.
While officials with the TDA admit there is a slight possibility of someone abusing the program (such as someone who is well-off financially coming for the free meals or someone who asks for a meal for child but then keeps it for themselves), they said there are regular and random checks of meal sites, and require each location to keep a strict tabulation of how many children are passing through the lunch line each day.
And so parents aren’t sending children unsupervised to the locations, the program offers the meals at a reduced rate for those who wish to dine with their child.
“We allow the option for the parents if they would like to sit and eat breakfast or lunch. And it’s three dollars. You can’t go to McDonald’s and get a hot, nourishing meal with fruits, vegetables, meat and milk for three dollars,” Murray-Paez said.
And while many Americans are struggling with finances and the economy, Murray-Paez and Navasota ISD are hoping that the kids don’t struggle through it too, by seeing less food in their pantries.
“We want the kids to come in. If we can get them in, and feed them while taking some economic burden off the parents, that’s our goal,” Murray-Paez said.
-- To see if your local community hosts a free summer food program, dial 2-1-1 or visit the links at the bottom of this story.
-- Navasota ISD says approximately 70 percent of its students qualify for reduced meals or free lunches during the regular school year.
-- The Navasota free food program is held at the Intermediate and Junior High campuses, with breakfast severed from 7:15 am to 8:15 am and lunch served from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm.
-- The program is running from June 8 through July 2 at the Navasota schools, although officials with the TDA say they're working to see if another site can host the meals through August.
-- No identification is required of children to receive the free meals, and even children as young as 1-year-old can get a meal.
-- Navasota Mayor Bert Miller made a proclamation at June 22nd's city council meeting, challenging residents to participate in the summer nutrition program to help ensure children are receiving adequate and healthy meals.
-- The Texas Department of Agriculture reported serving 17.8 million meals in the summer of 2008, totaling a reimbursement of $41.2 million from the national program's funds.