Dropouts cost high schools reduced meals

Published 11:29 am Friday, October 3, 2014

Just enough high school-age students dropped out of school last year to cut both public high schools in the Vicksburg Warren School District out of the mix for free or reduced breakfast and lunch this year, thanks to new federal regulations, the district’s nutritionist said Wednesday. 

Those eligible for the program made up 88.65 percent of the approximately 8,500-student district’s population through eighth grade, said Gail Kavanaugh, director of child nutrition for the district, during an address to the Vicksburg Lions Club. Eligibility for the aid through the Healthy Hunger Free-Kids Act of 2010 hinges on children being cross-listed with the Department of Human Services for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. District-wide, the percentage on free or reduced lunch is 75 percent.

That percentage in the elementary grades fell just short of the 90 percent needed to extend a grant the district received in May that reimburses the district and eliminated the former system of students applying for the aid.

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“The same children who qualified through DHS from pre-K through eighth dropped out of school by the tenth grade,” Kavanaugh said. “So, it skewed my data. They are the over-age children.”

This year was the first year all 50 states could apply for the program, which has the high-percentage ceiling to help students in the nation’s most poverty-stricken areas.

Kavanaugh said the district is seeking ways to offer reduced meals to students at the Star Academy at Grove Street School, a program geared to fast-track students’ return to their original classes if they’ve been held back at least two years.

Full effects of government-set limits on the salt, fat and calorie content in public schools are being felt in the district now after a slow rollout in 2011. Food sold in schools must be a fruit, vegetable, a protein food, a product rich in whole grains or a combination food that contains at least a quarter-cup of fruit or vegetables. It meant fruit-flavored candy, most cookies and carbonated drinks were out, and low fat tortillas, granola bars and fruit cups were in.

“It’s been a tedious process to revamp our school recipes to teach staff to cook differently and not use sodium,” Kavanaugh said.

Sodium content is limited drastically in foods sold under the program — 200 milligrams per portion as packaged, or the high range of a small, 1-ounce bag of potato chips, and 480 milligrams for entrees, or the equivalent of a 1-ounce slice of American cheese.

“Every child has to select a fruit,” Kavanaugh said. “When they come through the line at breakfast, they can’t just pick and choose anymore. They have to select a fruit.”

Classes for parents of children in the district that stress the traits of the school day’s healthier menu at home are planned for the junior high schools in 2015 as part of a program at Alcorn State University, Kavanaugh said.

“It shows a healthier way to cook some of the food that we like,” Kavanaugh said. “We’ll probably start in the junior highs. It’s a really good level to do that in.”

Kavanaugh touted a push by the Mayor’s Health Council, on which she serves, to encourage vendors at the Vicksburg Farmers’ Market to accept EBT cards.

“We’re also talking with the Farmers’ Market to visit an underserved area at least once a month,” Kavanaugh said.