HOPE – U.S. Senator John Boozman, R-Ar., expressed his support Wednesday for the innovation brought to providing nutrition to the students of the Hope Public Schools and Hempstead County during the COVID-19 crisis through the HPS Summer Meals Program.
Sen. Boozman met with HPS Child Nutrition Director Deanna Gilbert, Aramark Food Services Director Sandra Calhoun and county and city leaders at the Yerger Middle School cafeteria to learn more about the program that has provided some 500,000 meals to HPS students and children under age 18 since the COVID-19 closure of public schools in March, 2020.
“You are unsung heroes,” Boozman said. “There are so many during the pandemic, certainly the health care workers and others on the front line; but the people that feed our children are as well.”
Funding for food services in schools is based upon daily meals served, he said.
“All of you had to make decisions that nobody ever made before; and you had to get all these meals out into the community, and you just figured it out,” Boozman said.
Calhoun said the summer meals program has provided at least 125 meals per day on average, generally to low income families. The meals are provided at no cost to the parents.
“We try to provide hot meals every day,” she said. “I have a certain number of people who can’t come every day, so we provide multiple days. On Fridays, we provide everyone with a hot meal and meals for two days on the weekend.”
Calhoun said the program provides meals for rural HPS district families as well as families from other school districts in Hempstead County.
“I’ve got a family of eight that comes every Friday,” she said. “I have a couple of families, grandmothers that can’t come every day, so we provide them with multiple meals.”
Gilbert said the summer meals program provided 6,000 meals at local parks in the summer, 2019. She said the program is self-sustaining with reimbursement for meals served.
“The district does not give us any money for it,” Gilbert said. “Last year the district did give us a used bus that we decorated and took to the parks; and, we had fun and food, and, we’re anxious to get back to that this next year if possible.”
Gilbert said the district attempts to bring not only nutrition but dining enjoyment to HPS students with the renovation of school dining rooms to look more like restaurants than four white walls.
“We love it and the kids love it,” she said.
She said because the district participates in the federal Community Eligibility Program all students are provided breakfast and lunches at no cost to the parents during the school year. And, the federal government has provided certain waivers of some federal regulations because of COVID-19 that help throughout the summer.
Boozman said he is working to make those provisions of the program permanent.
“Right now, we are under a bunch of waivers which is making your life easier, I hope,” he said. “I’m glad to hear that the waivers are helping.”
Gilbert said permanently changing some aspects of federal nutrition requirements will not only reduce costs but provide for meals students will prefer and eat.Boozman agreed.
“So, yes, you have a problem right now in some sense, but you’ve got a waiver that makes it less difficult to put food in front of them that actually looks like food,” Boozman quipped. “Spaghetti that looks like spaghetti.”
He said that while good nutrition is essential in providing student meals, it should be nutrition based upon common sense.
“They are actually talking about ratcheting it up even more to put them on a more strict, almost heart disease diet,” Boozman said. “That’s fine; but the reality is people don’t eat this way. We just need some common sense in always making sure we are providing healthy food for our young people.”
Changing the regulations will also reduce costs due to food waste, he said.
Also meeting with Boozman on the YMS campus were State Representative Danny Watson, R-Hope, Hempstead County Judge Jerry Crane, Hope Mayor Don Still, Hempstead County Economic Development Corp. Director Steve Harris, and Hope City Manager Catherine Cook.