When Juanita Wagner’s family moved here last year, she was pleased to think that her daughter would get a good education. Lakeland School District has a solid reputation.
But she was shocked to learn what Sarah wouldn’t be able to get at Spirit Lake Elementary: a hot lunch. Wagner feels sorry for kids whose parents forget to pack a lunch, or simply have no food to send.
“There’s something wrong here,” said Wagner, who sometimes sends extra food so Sarah will have some to share.
“Are we thinking of our children?”
There are only seven Idaho school districts that don’t offer federally subsidized lunches. Lakeland is by far the largest.
Wagner hopes to change that dubious distinction.
“More power to her,” said Pam Abram, another Spirit Lake mom. “If she’s new to the district, she doesn’t know this has been an ongoing battle.”
Lakeland serves 3,660 students in the fast-growing communities of Rathdrum, Spirit Lake and Athol. There have been no school lunches here since the 1960s, according to school board chairman Joy Porter.
As old school buildings were replaced, the district didn’t have the money to pay for kitchens.
The market value of the property in sparsely populated western Kootenai county was limited, meaning the district didn’t have enough bonding capacity to pay for anything but pared-down facilities.
“Now we have the capacity. We have a lot of people who are interested (in starting a lunch program), a lot of people who are concerned,” said Porter. “But we don’t have enough of them voting and voting ‘yes’ to do it.”
In 1992, a bond election package to build Betty Kiefer Elementary included money for a food preparation kitchen that would serve all the schools. It failed, just barely, with 65.6 percent of the vote.
In 1993, voters could check two boxes: one to approve Betty Kiefer, one to build a kitchen. The school was approved with 71 percent of the vote, but the lunch program failed with 63 percent.
In March of 1996, the $600,000 for kitchen and equipment was again on the ballot, this time alongside a separate $9.3 million vote to build a high school. Both failed, with 55 and 56 percent of the vote, respectively.
Last fall, desperate for more classroom space and looking for a bond that voters would approve, the school board sought a combined junior-senior high school in Spirit Lake. They didn’t asking voters for a lunch program.
“We didn’t dare risk it,” Porter said. “People were coming to the polls with a negative attitude about the hot lunch program.”
At issue is more than an unwillingness to pay more property taxes.
In fact, taxes would not have been raised if the March 1996 bond had been approved. They would have dropped, because there are more people now paying taxes on more valuable property in the district.
Porter hears from people who are philosophically opposed to subsidized lunches for low-income families. “There’s a feeling that we’re already providing them with food stamps.”
Others think parents are lazy.
“They have the idea that, for the majority of kids who are going hungry or who aren’t coming to school with an adequate lunch, it’s not a money thing. It’s that mom doesn’t want to get up and pack a lunch, or do it before she goes to work,” said Porter.
At this week’s board meeting, trustees discussed the possibility of seeking a supplemental levy instead of a bond levy for the lunch program. That would require only a simple majority for approval.
Wagner plans to be at the February board meeting to press for another vote. She’s already called the mayor and the governor’s office, as well as district officials, seeking support.
Meanwhile, school officials and parents’ groups do what they can to make sure no kids go hungry. At Spirit Lake Elementary, Abram and other PTO members provide instant soup for kids who didn’t bring a lunch. They solicit donations and bring in pizza twice a month.
If the district serves up another vote on school lunches, Abram thinks the issue needs more publicity. In the past, she said, “we really didn’t advertise it, really didn’t get information out there saying this is the percentage of schools that have lunches, and we don’t.”
Porter agrees that a lunch program is needed. She’s not sure that feeding kids is the role of educators, but said that if they don’t eat well it clearly affects their education.
Besides, after 17 years on the board, she’d just like to stop hearing about the issue.
“Every so often, a new wave of people come in and are concerned about it, and we go back to the beginning again.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Close, but no lunch The district has taken three votes on the matter, asking residents to raise their property taxes to build a central kitchen, buy vans to transport the food, and complete dining facilities at the schools. Each election, most of the people approved. But the votes fell short of the “supermajority” of two-thirds required by state law for bond issues.