ashland.news
July 18, 2024

No free lunch? Actually, if you’re up to 18 years old, you can get one this summer in Ashland

Cafeteria Manager Heather Young, left, and food service worker Rebekah Davis pose with Samuel Westhelle, 4, during lunchtime Tuesday. Ashland School District photo
June 19, 2024

For first time in many years, school district launches free onsite lunch program; grant funding lined up to keep it going for the next five years

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

School may be out for summer, but free lunches are being served up at two Ashland elementary schools after a newly funded free onsite lunch program launched earlier this week for youth ages 1-18.

The program, funded by the federal National School Lunch Program, started Monday and offers hot lunch options in cafeterias at Walker and Bellview elementary schools. Lunch is served Monday through Thursday through Aug. 8. Youth do not need to be a student of either elementary or an Ashland school to participate in the program. 

The program is universal in the sense that any child 1-18 years old, no matter where they’re at, can come to have lunch at either of the two schools — no enrollment necessary — according to Christina Lehman, nutrition services director for Ashland School District.

Lehman, who has served in her role for the past five years, applied for the funding following a lengthy hiatus without an onsite free summer lunch program due to not being eligible.

“This is brand new,” Lehman told Ashland.news earlier this week. “You have to qualify through the National School Lunch Program and it’s based off of poverty level and Ashland … it hasn’t qualified in many, many years.”

Lehman decided to apply for funding because she noticed more and more students were signing up for free and reduced price meals during the past year.

Samuel Westhelle, 4, enjoys his free lunch on Tuesday in Ashland. Ashland School District photo

Then in October 2023, the Oregon Department of Education changed qualifications for free meals.

In addition to qualifying for free meals through either an application filled out by a parent or guardian based on income, or the state verifying youth whose family is on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits, youth covered by Medicaid are now eligible for free meals.

Lehman said when the new eligibility rules changed, “it jumped our numbers up for free meals substantially.”

During the past school year, 249 new students qualified for free meals in one month who hadn’t yet qualified before, Lehman said.

The deets

What: Free summer lunch for youth 1-18

When: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday through Aug. 8

Where: Walker Elementary School, 364 Walker Ave., and Bellview Elementary School, 1070 Tolman Creek Road

“That’s huge when we basically only have an enrollment of about 2,400 kids,” Lehman said.

Typically, Ashland School District has been at about 33% of of its students participating in the free and reduced price school lunch program. That percentage has nearly doubled in the last year, with about 65% of students participating.

“So then I was like, ‘Wow, all of a sudden Ashland might’ve qualified for all these programs that they’ve never qualified before because they’re all based on your percentage of free and reduced (lunches),” Lehman said.

“Oregon is working on a 100% universal meal program,” Lehman added.

In the meantime, until the program is in place, Lehman said 95% of the school districts in Oregon will qualify for onsite free lunches due to the expansion of eligibility requirements. 

As a country, Lehman said the United States is moving toward universal free lunches nationwide.

“It makes it more equitable,” she said.

Parents and guardians are encouraged to come to the lunch program with their children or to have an older sibling with them, though no child will be turned away. Lunches must be eaten on site.

The menu includes hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, a full salad bar and a drink.

No lunch service was provided on Wednesday, June 19, due to the Juneteenth holiday. There will also be no lunch provided on Thursday, July 4, the Independence Day holiday.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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