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Beefing up lunch

Never looking back. During the 2014-15 school year, Niobrara County School District in Lusk, Wyoming, decided to forgo National School Lunch Program's guidelines and funding. This was the best decision for the predominantly rural school district, according to NCSD Food Service Director Judy Lucas and NCSD Business Manager Stuart Larson.

"The kids were hungry. They would come back for seconds and I couldn't give them any," Lucas said. "We decided to go off the federal program because there wasn't enough food for the kids; they were hungry, just hungry."

The federal guidelines were consistently including more no-meat meals and fewer carbohydrate-filled foods, which is problematic, Lucas said, to students who travel up to 45 minutes one way to school. One meal that falls under federal guidelines consisted of one breadstick, an ounce of marinara sauce, 4 oz. of peas, and 8 oz. of tossed salad.

"There are kids getting up and doing chores in the morning, riding the bus in, going out for recess twice, going to practice, then riding the bus home and doing chores again," Lucas said. "Around here, those lunches don't cut it. The kids want meat and bread and pasta, and they're very carb-heavy, but it gets them through the whole day."

“The kids were hungry. They would come back for seconds and I couldn’t give them any. We decided to go off the federal program because there wasn’t enough food for the kids; they were hungry, just hungry.”Judy Lucas, NCSD food service director

NCSD is one of six districts to leave NSLP in Wyoming and it has proven to be a sound business decision.

"Prior to going off of the federal lunch program, we used to subsidize the lunch program between $90,000 and $100,000 each year," Larson said. "After the first year of being off of the federal program, that amount decreased to $85,000. The beef donations started near the end of the first semester of the 2015-16 school year, so that amount could go down even more during the 2016-17 school year."

Several area ranchers and individuals have aided the school in succeeding without federal funding through beef, pork and monetary donations. The school currently has enough beef to last through January.

"We also have people donating cash to the lunch program in addition to the beef and pork donations," Larson said. "During the 2015-16 school year, we received $1,727.85 in cash donations, so some of our local people believe that we are doing the right things for our students."

During the 2014-15 school year, the federal subsidy was $44,339.10. NCSD was able to offset the subsidy deficit by increasing the lunch price, about which Larson heard zero complaints.

"Because of our increased participation and slightly higher prices, we collected $12,306.73 more revenue during the 2015-16 school year than the prior year," he said. "We continue to use the same free and reduced lunch rules that the federal program does and offer families that qualify free and reduced lunches. Our reduced prices are 50 percent of the full price lunch."

Upon first leaving the program, Lucas said 30 pounds of beef would feed the school, including elementary, middle, and high. Now the amount is 50 pounds due to the increase of students who eat at the cafeteria.

"Each day we get a lunch count of kids who are going to eat and that number went from about 130 to 185," Lucas said. "The kids can get seconds or thirds or fourths; they can eat until the food is gone and they do."

Larson said it is apparent that there is far less food thrown away and fewer students bringing their own lunches since Lucas has been given free rein. Under NSLP, she was not allowed to use seasoning or salt.

Through a federal program called Farm to School, NCSD installed two high tunnel green houses allowing students to harvest their own food, which Lucas has used for lunch meals.

"The high tunnels have been wonderful. Vegetables are planted in summer, then through the school year FFA and other students go out everyday and harvest and clean up the plants," Lucas said. "The kids are a part of something that they don't all do that at home. Most kids receive low or free meals and are very poor. If they have a dollar, they're not going to buy a packet of seeds with it, they're going to get a box of mac 'n cheese."

NCSD was donated two pigs last week and have beef lined up and ready to donated, some of which are organized and donated by members of the Niobrara County Cattlewomen. Should the time come where donated meat is not available, however, Lucas said she would adjust the menu to include more chicken, a cheaper source of protein.

Beef must be processed at a USDA-approved plant.

"We bring beef to Spearfish, which is closest that will process for us. It is quite a trip for ranchers to haul it there, then haul it back, and pay for fuel and processing," Lucas said. Those who have donated the beef or other local individuals have paid the processing up until the two hogs donated last week.

"I am just so thankful to the ranchers," she said. "They have no clue what it's done for the kids; they just come in and get as full as they want."

Larson said he hopes other schools consider leaving NSLP if it is a fit for their schools.

"I met a guy in Kansas a couple weeks ago who said his dad was on school board at that school. He said they've talked about it," he said. "Conversation is going on a lot of other places than here. I hope they embrace it." F