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Hundreds of students will have access to free lunches this summer in Durango

Durango School District 9-R coordinates with U.S. Department of Agriculture to help fight food insecurity
Durango School District 9-R is helping feed children in Durango this summer through the Summer Food Service Program. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Durango School District 9-R is making sure kids are fed this summer through the Summer Food Service Program.

Bag lunches will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday at Santa Rita Park until July 29. Any child age 1 to 18 can receive a lunch. The free summer lunch program is reimbursed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and serves about 125 children each day of operation.

“Some are enrolled summer school students or extended school year students who need to make up credits,” said Matthew Poling, director of Food and Nutrition for 9-R. “They account for a small percentage of that number. The majority of them are out at Santa Rita Park where we’re just serving the general community at large.”

Poling said it costs the school district about $4.50 per bag lunch and the district is reimbursed by the USDA for the costs at the end of the summer. The bag lunches must follow the nutritional guidelines provided by the USDA. The lunches must have fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein.

Nutrition staff members use excess nonperishable kitchen inventory from the school year for parts of the bag lunches as a way to reduce food waste.

Poling said the Summer Food Service Program is beneficial to a community such as Durango where the cost of living is increasing.

“That’s kind of the point of the program. It’s offered to kids regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of district enrollment,” he said. “It takes the stigma away from receiving meal benefits because everybody eats free.”

Poling said increased food insecurity in Durango is one of the main reasons for the outreach from 9-R.

“The cost of living in Durango is astronomical,” he said. “Even if you have a middle class family, that elsewhere in the country might be doing really well, they could be struggling here regardless of where they are in terms of poverty level.”

The program does not require information on the part of the child. Poling said his staff members will not ask for a name or enrollment. He wants children to feel comfortable having a meal to eat without facing potential scrutiny.

The USDA approves sites for the Summer Food Service Program based on the number of students receiving meal benefits from the school district. If a school has more than 50% of students on free and reduced lunches, then the area becomes eligible for the program. School districts also use census data to apply to participate in the program.

“It’s pretty in depth in terms of what we have to go through to get these programs administered,” Poling said. “Especially in Durango, I think we’re severely underreported because I think some families are hesitant to fill out those applications.”

Poling advises families who want to apply for meal benefits to fill out an application for the upcoming school year. Over the past two years, 9-R students have been eligible to eat for free without signing up for free or reduced lunches during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Poling said next year only students who apply for meal benefits will receive free and reduced lunches.

Parents may apply for the benefits through the 9-R website on the food and nutrition page.

“We’re kind of worried because they haven’t had to do it for two years and we’re trying to reach out as much as possible to let people know we’re going back to the old ways,” Poling said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com

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