A federal program that feeds hungry underprivileged students is underway in Kyrene School District.
But Kyrene is offering free breakfast and lunch for teens and children 18 and under at only one school — unlike neighboring districts where multiple schools and even non-campus sites are participating in the federally funded program.
“All children are welcome. They do not even have to be Kyrene students,” said district spokeswoman Erin Helm.
Children and teens can eat breakfast and lunch for free at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary School, 1330 E. Dava Drive, Tempe.
No registration necessary, and adults can eat there to for $2 for breakfast and $3.50 for lunch.
Meals will be served Monday through Thursday from June 3 to July 24 except on July 3 and July 4. Breakfast will be served 7:45-9:15 a.m. and lunch 11:25 a.m.-1 p.m.
The district does not pay for the program, which is a partnership with the Arizona Department of Education’s Summer Lunch Buddies program and Southwest Foodservice Excellence.
In past years Kyrene has opened other schools for the program, but there were few takers.
However, the district said if demand at Niños is high “the district may consider expanding summer food service” to another site qualified for hosting the program.
Generally, a school qualifies as a feeding site if at least 50 percent of its student body qualifies for the free-and-reduced-price lunch program during the regular school year, based on family income.
According to state data, few Kyrene schools come close to that threshold.
At Niños, 72 percent of students qualify. Other schools in the district that meet the 50 percent threshold are Paloma, also 76 percent and Kyrene Middle School, 52 percent.
Among Kyrene schools in Ahwatukee, the percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunches are: Akimel A-al Middle School, 26 percent; Altadena Middle, 8 percent; Centennial, 41 percent; Cerritos, 8 percent; Colina, 39 percent; Esperanza, 26 percent; Estrella, 20 percent; Milenio, 34 percent; and Monte Vista, 12 percent.
The summer meals program ensures students continue to eat free, nutritious meals when school is not in session and is administered by the Arizona Department of Education.
The meal offering will be those considered “popular” during the school year — including crispy chicken sandwiches, chicken and waffles, chef’s salad, ham and cheese sandwiches and full servings of fruits and vegetables.
“For our high-need areas in the state it’s critical,” said Stefan Swiat, department spokesman. “When you look at certain portions of the state there are areas where students only receive their meals from school.
“If you are on the breakfast and lunch program during the school year and it goes away in the summer, you need to supplant that food,” Swiat added. “That program gives students the opportunity to receive nutritional substance throughout the summer.”
The meals are similar to what is offered during the school year. They must meet federal nutrition standards with lunch, including milk, two servings of fruits and vegetables, a grain and a protein.
In Arizona there was a 3 percent increase in students participating in the program for 2018 from the year before, according to Swiat.
He said it would be speculative to say why the numbers increased.
“There are so many variables,” he said. “It could be growth in a district, growth in the state. You talk to 10 different economists and you get 10 different opinions.”
Statewide, 56 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals while overall in Kyrene, only about 16 percent of its approximate 19,000 students qualify.
Overall for summer 2018, the federal program provided over 1.5 million meals and snacks to children around the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Agency.
Although there are Valley food banks, not all families can get to them, Swiat said.
“What you see throughout the state are schools, specifically district sites that are very convenient locations for students who don’t have access to transportation and can’t get to a food bank,” he said.
“Schools are the cornerstone of a community and are more accessible to students than one off-site like a food bank,” Swiat said. “In addition, a lot of schools provide transportation to students. They pick you up and drop off at certain schools.”
Locations where the program can be offered also include camps, parks, playgrounds, housing projects, community centers, churches and other public sites where children hang out during the summer.
Swiat said in Arizona, 55 to 60 percent of the sites are on school campuses.
“I just encourage people to take advantage of the program that are in need and for schools to reach out to people that it’s available,” he said.