- About Us
Kent's free lunch program continues to serve many children in need
They say there's no such thing as a free lunch, and while the phrase is pretty true for adults, children throughout Kent have lined up each day this summer to get a free meal.
During the summer, the Kent School District offers free lunches to anyone aged 1 to 18.
Program director Larry McKinnis estimates that when the program ends today, the district will have served around 55,000 lunches. Some parents have only $184 to feed as many as three children, so having a guaranteed lunch each day is a major windfall. The program ran from June 24, or the first Monday after school ended, to the last Friday before it begins.
The program is at least 17 years old, says McKinnis, who has managed it since 1998. At the end of the school year, McKinnis hires on volunteers to prep the lunches and drive busses to the distribution points. All of his hires were made internally from the KSD food services to help keep overhead costs down. The USDA funds the program on a grant of $3.75 per lunch, so McKinnis has to run a threadbare staff and save costs where possible, such as transportation and manpower.
The lunches are produced in a central kitchen by a staff of around 10, who work on a conveyor line to add each food item to the boxes. According to production leader Louise Sousa, the workday for these women begins at 6 in the morning and typically runs until 11 or 12 at night.
After the lunches are prepared, they go to a refrigerator unit and are packed into insulated bags for loading on the lunch busses. These busses deliver between 200 and 300 lunches each day at seven sites around Kent. McKinnis hopes to expand the number of sites as the years go by.
All the lunches need to be served cold, says McKinnis, to reduce the costs of logistics in serving meals at the required temperatures. Lunches have a mandatory cup of fruit and vegetable, and range from turkey and cheese sandwiches to slider rolls. Because all the meals have to be served cold, he has to get creative with his menu. Menu items range from ham and cheese sandwiches to tuna salads to turkey wraps.
Lunches are tightly controlled. The kids have to eat their lunches within sight of, or inside the busses. Shelly Rockwell, who drives for the program, says that this is to keep the children from taking the lunch home, leaving it out and then getting sick after eating expired food products. It also prevents parents from abusing the system to get their own free lunch.
Many of the staff volunteer to do it not so much for the extra money, but because they get to help children in need.