AI ABCs and Me

Picture for a moment the first day of kindergarten. It may be a bit overwhelming entering that new building, seeing a different group of kids. In some cases it can be a scary experience, particularly when it comes to entering a lunch room for the first time.

“I think the younger kids, in my experience, if you can get them to come into the cafeteria then that’s more of an obstacle than anything else,” says Susan McLoughlin, food service director at Homer-Center School District. It’s one of the reasons why Homer-Center conducts a summer program called ABCs and Me, a time where all kindergartners can come to school, locate their rooms and learn the layout of the building. “It’s a really nice program because they get to come for a couple weeks and acclimate to the building without all the other kids.”

The cafeteria, though, is especially important for the kindergarteners to learn about because of the healthy eating options incorporated by McLoughlin and the school district. Learning about these healthy food options is essential at a young age, as McLoughlin and Homer-Center follow the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, which provides nutritionally balanced meals to children as part of their regular school day.

“School regulations have changed tremendously since I started this job, and I think we’ve always been ahead of the game so to speak in that a lot of the regulations in place now we were doing anyways, so it isn’t a major thing,” McLoughlin says. “But with the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program there are guidelines you have to follow.”

For breakfast, there is always a hot entrée, cereal, yogurt, fruit, milk and fruit juice for all students to choose from. Lunch offers an entrée, vegetable, bread products that follow the guidelines and milk.

“When I talk to parents, I said, ‘if the kids ever say there’s nothing to eat here or there’s not enough choices, then they’re out of their minds,’” McLoughlin laughs. “If they eat everything then there’s no reason they should be hungry.”

McLoughlin says there’s often a stereotype that kids, particularly those who are younger, will not eat healthy foods. In her experience, McLoughlin says it’s the younger students who “are not nearly as picky” as the high school students about healthy eating. Despite younger students’ shyness about voicing what they would like, they are the first ones to try new foods.

“We know we have to offer things quite a few times before they will eat it because every once in a while they’ll say no, then they’ll put it on their tray, and then the next time they’ll eat it,” she says. “But they’re good about eating their fruits and vegetables.”

McLoughlin says the reaction to the school menu has been great so far, and that has carried over to an array of summer activities. As a site for the Evergreen Boys & Girls Clubs, free summer programs take place at Homer-Center, including science, technology, engineering, art/design, and math (STEAM)-based enrichment activities, social recreation and fitness, as well as free healthy breakfast and lunch options.

“We were already feeding the kids because they were there during the day, and then we gave them a snack after school during the official boys and girls program,” McLoughlin says. “When they had their summer program, it continued on with what we continued during the school day.”

In addition to the Boys & Girls Clubs activities and ABCs and Me, various summer camps, including football, cheerleading and band camps, are welcome to come for food. The school also gives meals to libraries and churches that have summer programs as a way of giving back to the community and continuing to inspire healthy eating options.

“We’re putting out a lot of meals over the summer, and since it is an open site, even if kids want to come and eat and they don’t participate in these programs, they’re allowed,” she says. “Anybody under the age of 18 can come and eat when we are open — and it’s free.”