Pizza, tamales and burgers are only a few of the items available to students across parts of Denton County, but each meal is more complicated than simple meal preparations.

Before the first square of casserole or scoop of vegetables can find their way to a student’s plate, schools must meet a stringent list of requirements provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For example, federal regulators set standards for how many milligrams of sodium students can have based upon their grade level and whether they’re eating breakfast or lunch. Similar guidelines are in place for the availability of certain fruits, vegetables and more.

“You create your menu and make it as good as you can within their guidelines,” said Jeannie DeLange, child nutrition director for Ponder ISD.

Like some other school districts in the area, she has cafeteria menus rotating on a four-week cycle. A few new items a month will find their way to lunch trays for a trial run, but the most popular items remain as staples. Mondays bring pizza and Fridays bring cheeseburgers like clockwork, and chicken nuggets make appearances more than once a month.

“What the kids are used to eating at home is what they’d rather have here,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying that’s a fact.”

In practice, that means that healthier foods are more often foreign and unappealing to students, especially those in the elementary schools. A cultural shift away from stay-at-home parents is at least partially to blame, in DeLange’s reckoning.

Beyond the food itself, districts have an additional set of headaches when it comes to pricing. While many local districts have breakfast and lunch available for a few dollars, many students won’t ever pay that price in full.

Students who are migratory, homeless or living in foster care are automatically eligible for free meals. Families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, colloquially known as food stamps, are also eligible for free meals for their children.

Perhaps the most well-known avenue for eligibility in a federal free and reduced-price meal program looks toward household income. For example, a household of three people earning less than $39,461 would be eligible for reduced-price meals in Texas. A family of the same size earning less than $27,729 would qualify for free meals.

For comparison, federal guidelines set $21,330 as the poverty level for a family of three, and a full-time minimum-wage job in Texas would bring in about $15,000 before taxes.

Between 38% and 46% of students at each campus in Ponder ISD qualify for either free or reduced-price meals in the previous school year, DeLange said. In that same time period, the district served 100,945 meals. For comparison, the district had an average of less than 1,500 students, according to state data.

About 20 miles away, Denton ISD cafeterias were pumping out more than 35 times as many meals during the same time period. That data does not factor in students who don’t purchase a complete meal, such as students who buy only a slice of pizza or something to drink as a supplement to their meal.

Denton ISD has 46% of students eligible for either free or reduced-price meals, said Liz Raftery, assistant director of child nutrition in the district.

On the campus level, some schools have as little as 5% eligibility for the program and some have closer to 80% eligibility. Five campuses in the district — Hodge, Rivera, Ginnings, Borman and Evers Park elementary schools — have a high enough participation rate to qualify them for the universal free breakfast program through the USDA.

In a similar vein, districts with enough students enrolled in federal assistance programs, including SNAP benefits, can apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, which provides compensation for free meals for all students. The eligibility requirements for CEP are not the same for the traditional free and reduced-price program signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946.

North Texas Collegiate Academy, a district with three local charter schools, is currently obtaining CEP benefits for the second year. Lilli Tolley, child nutrition director for NTCA, said the district’s Denton, Lewisville and Little Elm campuses are able to provide free meals to all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, and each campus will receive full federal reimbursement for the program.

Raftery said Denton ISD has looked at the program but hasn’t seriously considered applying because not enough campuses would qualify.

With additional federal dollars come additional federal guidelines. Tolley said the increased requirements practically force the district to serve each student an identical meal. Sometimes calorie counts are so close, she said, that adding just one ketchup packet to the serving would push the meal over the line.

“It’s a pretty fascinating puzzle to put the meals together,” she said.

When put into context with the school uniform policy, Tolley said having identical meals is also a way to remove socioeconomic pressures from students, allowing them to focus more on learning and less on status.

MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.

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