When the lunch bell rings at Jordan Valley High School, students have a few options: they can walk to the center of town to buy lunch at one of two local restaurants. They can pick something up at at Mrs. Z’s, the only convenience store in this town. Or they eat lunch brought from home. Most of the 81 students in the school district are from ranching families, and they bus into school from up to 30 miles away.
As of this year, Jordan Valley no longer has a school lunch program. During lunch hour students jockey for time at several microwaves in the lunch room to heat frozen pizza and leftover lasagna.
Jordan Valley is one of eighteen school districts in Oregon that don’t provide hot lunch. Those districts are largely rural. In contrast, there are now urban programs that provide some low-income kids three subsidized meals per day.
“I have to buy extra stuff that I could normally buy other stuff to feed my family,” says Mariann Duffy. Her family of three lives on public assistance, and her eleven-year-old son qualified for free lunch. When they were available, those subsidized lunches allowed her food stamps to stretch more each month.
“It’s kinda difficult,” Duffy continues, “because the food would go further if I didn’t have to buy lunch stuff. I spend $40 at the bread store now.”
Jordan Valley schools have no kitchen, so five years ago, the district contracted with a local restaurant to provide hot lunch. For the first few years, meals were popular.
“Chicken nuggets were good. That’s the only thing I liked,” says Duffy’s son, L.J.
Almost all of the students ate hot lunch. But that changed a couple of years ago: “Kids quit eating,” says LeeAnn Conro, business manager for the Jordan Valley District. She speculates that it was because of required menu changes. “More whole wheat, more green veggies, no salt — it’s not as palatable.”
New rules under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act mandated less salt, more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and small meat portions. Most Oregon schools now meet the federal standards, and kids are eating the healthier lunches just fine.
To get federal funding, schools have to prove how each part of the meal — every slice of pizza and each cup of fruit — meets the nutrition standards. They have to track which students eat every day, and document whether those kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“The record keeping became cumbersome to say the least,” says Conro.
Conro raised her kids, now adults, in Jordan Valley, and she sent them with lunches made from home throughout their years at school. Community members here pride themselves on being self-sufficient. Most of the parents here grew up without hot lunch, so losing the it just means going back to the way things always were here.
“I know this sounds really horrible that we just suddenly don’t have hot lunch,” says Conro. “It was that way for 100 years. Nobody’s going hungry here.”
Large school districts often have several people who run meal programs. They can streamline tasks like menu preparation and student tracking.
But is this a harder feat for small, rural districts?
“Yes,” says Heidi Dupuis. She oversees the school nutrition programs for Oregon’s Department of Education. “For small school districts,” she explains, “it’s a one-person show for who is planning meals, purchasing the food, preparing the food, serving the food, counting it. And now we have this, an additional level of documentation.”
On top of that, rural schools face the challenge and expense of just getting the food to make meals. Jordan Valley is 87 miles from the closest major grocery.
Last summer, the restaurant owners in Jordan Valley decided not to contract with the school to provide lunch. It just didn’t pencil out for their businesses.
With the lunch program gone, volunteers made barbecued beef, last month, for the school, with donated meat from local ranchers. Parents take turns baking cinnamon rolls for bus trips to away games.
“This community really pulls together. That’s what they do,” says Jennifer Johnson, superintendent of the 81 student school district. “But to run the school lunch program,” she says, “you have to have a certified kitchen. We don’t have that. And we don’t have the money to put that in place.”
So are students getting enough to eat now? Johnson sighs, and says, “I hope so.”
She keeps a stash of instant noodles and other snacks in the school office, just in case.