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Kids Can't Learn if they Don't Eat

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NOXON, MT – If you think preparing lunch for a kid is as simple as spreading some peanut butter on a slice of bread, think again. Three ladies in Noxon have been fixing lunches for kids for a combined total of 53 years, and they have it down, not to a science, but to an art.
    This year Cindy Foster is marking her 25th year in the kitchen at Noxon School as a cook’s helper; Georjean Ainsworth has been in the same kitchen for 15 years, much of that time as the school’s baker; and Rosalie Booth has helped feed Noxon’s children for 13 years, the past six of those as Head Cook. With rigorous training and workshops as part of her background, Rosalie has become Noxon’s first certified cook in school history.
    Rosalie, who admits to a “tendency to get a little excited” when talking about school lunches, is not shy with the pride she feels for the food program she has helped establish at Noxon School, a kindergarten through twelfth grade school which harbors 260 children. The enrollment has been as high as 330 in recent years.
    Not only do these women serve lunch, however; they also provide breakfast to all those who want it. That part of the food program got started when Rosalie became Head Cook in 1996. And what’s unique about this food program is that it is entirely free to every child, all the staff, the administration and visitors. District Clerk Teresa Van Buren knows of only one other school in the state (outside reservations) with a similar program and that’s in neighboring Trout Creek.
    Funding for the program comes from federal and state reimbursements through the free and reduced cost lunch program (about one third of the budget) and the rest comes from the general fund, which is financed by property taxes and supplemental levies.
    Of the approximate 290 people at Noxon School most every day, Rosalie says her kitchen feeds between 55 and 100 any given morning and another 215 to 265 at noon. The importance of this free food program is immeasurable, she says. “For a lot of the kids it’s the only balanced meal they get.” For single parents or working parents, and especially for families of low income, Rosalie says it’s not always easy to provide healthy, well-balanced meals for the children, so she and Cindy and Georjean are more than happy to step in and provide the nourishment they need.
    Van Buren and District Receptionist Tami Gebhardt claim that not too long ago more than 70% of the school’s children qualified for free and reduced cost lunches according to federal guidelines. That percentage has improved in the past couple of years, but still nearly half of the children at Noxon School come from families that qualify for free or reduced cost lunches- a qualification based on low income.
    However, though the program may be free to the children and others, the funding must come from somewhere, and part of it comes to the school through reimbursements. That’s why it is so important, explains Van Buren, for parents to fill out the appropriate paperwork for their children. For every child who qualifies for free food the school district is reimbursed $2.09 for each lunch and $1.15 for each breakfast served. Reduced cost lunches are worth $1.69 and breakfasts 85¢ in reimbursements and even children who would otherwise have to pay for their meals can generate reimbursements for the district to the tune of 20¢ for lunch and 21¢ for breakfast. In January alone, the school district filed a reimbursement claim for over $5,000.
    Gebhardt gave assurances that the information contained in the application for the free and reduced cost lunch program is kept strictly confidential.
    Rosalie and the kitchen staff are happy to leave the funding part in other hands. Their concern is for feeding the kids. “I like being around kids,” Rosalie said. “I’m interested in the nutritional aspect.” and she finds a deep sense of satisfaction in providing healthy meals to anyone who’s hungry. Besides, she remarked, “Kids can’t learn if they don’t eat.”
    Cindy can attest to that, having spent 25 years watching children come and go. She has even witnessed a new generation of children enter the school whose parents she helped feed when they were tots. “I have seen kids go from kindergarten through graduation, and now their kids have started school,” she smiled.
    Rosalie explained they follow strict nutritional guidelines dictated by the federal government in what they include in the school’s meals. Actually, this is where the food program does become a science as the cooks watch carefully the total calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium and nutrients they include throughout the week. In striking that delicate balance, Rosalie said that in general she aims for “two fat days and three skinny days” in planning each week’s menu.
    At breakfast, Rosalie said, the kids’ favorite is French toast, turkey sausage and bananas. A close second, she figured, could be baking powder biscuits smothered with sausage gravy (turkey sausage gravy, of course!). She makes sure a variety of fruits and milk are offered every morning as well.
    For lunch the offerings vary widely from chef’s salad to chili to all sorts of pasta, goulash, pizza, and new this year, stir fry and a potato bar. But no matter what the week’s menu holds in store, Rosalie is careful to balance the children’s nutritional intake and follows “A Menu Planner for Healthy School Meals” produced by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
    This attention to such minute details, Rosalie says, is because “we honestly care about what we do."
    “For some kids,” remarked Georjean, “this is like their home kitchen. We’re nurturing these kids. We take their needs to heart. And we enjoy our students.”
    As valuable as this program is to many of Noxon’s students, it is in danger of being lost. School Superintendent Jackie Holzhauser said of the free food program, “It has been a tradition, and this is a very tradition-oriented community. It is extremely important.”
    Holzhauser explained that passage of an upcoming supplemental levy by district voters is essential to keeping the food program at Noxon alive. “If the levy doesn’t pass,” she stated, “the whole program – breakfast and lunch – will probably have to be dropped.” The revenue that could be generated by charging everyone that wants to eat at the school would not be enough by even half, she said, to cover the cost of the program; and it was reiterated that for about the cost of a large pizza per year on property owners’ taxes, the program could be saved.
    Otherwise, perhaps it would be bread and peanut butter for lunch instead of the carefully orchestrated meals prepared by three very dedicated ladies whose chief concern is that kids need to eat, and they need to eat healthy. It’s been a commitment for 53 years between Rosalie, Cindy and Georjean. They’d love to see the program carried on for another half century.

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Dennis Nicholls Dennis Nicholls was the founder, publisher, janitor and paperboy of the River Journal from 1993 to 2001. He passed away in 2009.

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education, Noxon, health

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