Free meals giving students a leg up in schools across the region

HERMISTON, Ore. — Nutrition plays an important role in a child’s ability to learn. But, for some families, it can be a struggle to put food on the table. Many schools have free meal programs available for those students.

Thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision of The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, some of the nation’s highest poverty districts are able to provide meals for all students, regardless of their need.  

That’s now the case in Hermiston. 

“We know that for some of our kids, school is where they get their regular meals. So, we want to make sure we’re accommodating those needs,” said Tricia Mooney, superintendent of Hermiston School District.  

This school year, there will be no barriers to a free meal for Hermiston School District students enrolled in Kindergarten through the Eighth Grade.  

“Throughout the pandemic there were free meals for all students,” Mooney said, “and as we worked through the transition back to the ending of that federal waiver, we applied for what’s called Community Eligibility.” 

The Community Eligibility Provision requires schools to have more than 40% of students qualify for free meals in order for the entire student population to get free lunch.  

Hermiston High School was just short of the threshold.  

“At the high school we do offer, as a district, through partnership with Chartwell, which is our food service provider, we do offer free breakfast at the high school,’ Mooney said. “We’ve done that for a few years where we’ve had free breakfast K-12.” 

Mooney says the meals go a long way to help students focus in class. Medical experts have long argued the same.  

Benton Franklin Health District Health Officer Dr. Amy Person says nutrition is key to concentration.  

“We know that kids, particularly kids that get breakfast in the morning are better learners, they’re happier.” 

When it comes to the best kinds of food, Dr. Person says it’s all about balance.  

“Make sure that you’re offering your kids a variety of fruits and vegetables, that they’re getting protein that they need, and that you are limiting things that have extra sugar sweetened beverages or foods that are high in fat,” she said. 

Numerous other schools throughout the region also provide meals for students. The Richland, Kennewick and Pasco School District all have nutrition programs. Walla Walla and College Place Public Schools also qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision for all students this school year.