Dinner at Georgetown Middle School, much like the tween diners themselves, is a frenzy of controlled chaos.
On average, 80 to 90 kids eat dinner five days a week in the GMS cafeteria. From the first tray to the last, it takes about 25 minutes.
On Friday, a deli sandwich was on the menu along with carrot sticks, fresh fruit and water or milk. Dinner by any standard was early, 3:05 p.m., but that’s by design so kids can have fuel for after-school activities.
“At this age, these kids can never get enough food,” said Nutritional Services Manager Lori Knight, aka Lunch Lady in Charge, who raised two boys herself.
Jyden Graham, who plays football, is a regular. “After lunch there is a long time between when you can eat again,” said Graham, who wore a frog sticker in the middle of his forehead and two bleached, tiny pony tails on top of his head. He is a fan, in particular, of cheeseburger day.
Knight started the program three years ago after hearing about it at a state conference. At the time, only two districts in the state were using the program, which is funded through the United States Department of Agriculture, specifically the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Knight, who has worked in Scott County for eight years, said students sometimes told her during Monday lunch that it was the first good meal they had since Friday. Other times, she said, she could tell kids were struggling as they were coming through the lunch line. “You can tell when a child comes through hungry,” she said. And, she said, “sometimes kids tell the lunch lady things they won’t tell their teachers.”
GMS qualified for the program because more than half of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. But in addition, Knight said, there had to be enrichment activities on the school campus to qualify for the program. (In addition to the dinner program, Scott County offers free lunch and dinner to all students at four schools: GMS, Garth and Southern elementary schools, and the Scott County Preschool.)
At GMS, enrichment activities include homework help, a robotics club, the football team, cheerleading and theater productions. Dinner begins at 3:05, immediately after class is out, and after-school activities start around 3:30 p.m. Students can take their food with them anywhere on the school campus.
Students must provide a permission slip to participate in the program that explains how they will get home from school, since buses will have left by the time dinner is over, Knight said.
After that, when students come to lunch, they put a check by their name if they are coming for dinner. Knight and her staff then make enough food for that number of kids.
Although the sixth-graders are “still a work in progress,” the students are pretty good at making sure their names are on the list. “It helps teach them responsibility,” she said.
Football Coach Steve Burke said that before the dinner program, he spent $1,500 to $2,000 a year to feed the fighting Buffaloes before away games. Now, he said, that money — raised mostly by selling concessions — can go toward equipment such as helmets and shoulder pads.
“It’s great because it has been a huge money saver,” he said. Also, it gives players a chance to spend time together off the field. “Teams that eat together are better teams,” he said.
The program expanded this year to Garth and Southern elementary schools, which are in the same downtown Georgetown neighborhood as GMS. Knight said at those schools the meal is referred to as “A Super Snack,” but the process is much the same. While the deli sandwich served Friday was a sack lunch, hot meals are also on the menu.
Scott County Superintendent Kevin Hub said he would like to see the program spread to any school that qualifies. “I am more than supportive of this effort,” Hub said.
Knight said she is still looking for opportunities. “If I could figure out a way” to serve the Scott County Cardinals football team, “I’d feed them too,” she said.
Knight said she’s had parents come up to her in Wal-Mart to tell them how much they appreciate the dinner program — and not only because it saves them money. In middle school, face time with your friends is at a premium, and dinner at school provides an extra 25 minutes with them.
Dinner at GMS By The Numbers
▪ 6000: Dinners served last year
▪ 80 to 90: Number of students fed each day
▪ 25: Average time it takes to feed them