Lunch program in the works at charter school

Photo by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Otwell Miller Academy kindergartner Hayden Robling enjoys his lunch with classmates at the school on Monday. The school is planning to add a kitchen and lunch program for the students who currently bring their own lunches.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

OTWELL — Otwell Miller Academy Director Rich Padgett plans to have a lunch program up and running at the school by spring.

Currently, students at the Pike County charter school bring their lunches from home to eat in the lunch room, which has microwaves so students can warm up food. Since the school opened, however, administrators have worked to get a food program running at the school to serve breakfasts and lunch to students and staff. It’s been a slow process, Padgett said.

“We’re in the middle of the bogs with it,” he said.

Former director Rick Fears started the process last year. Since then the school has been working closely with the Indiana Department of Education to set up a partnership with a food service company that will provide the food and required staff, such as a certified nutritionist, that schools are required to have to offer the free and reduced lunch program.

About 52 percent of Otwell Miller Academy’s 107 students qualify for free or reduced meals, Padgett said, so offering that service is important. But that may not be able to happen this year.

Many of the food service companies available to schools operate near Indianapolis and Evansville, not in rural areas like Otwell. That’s one reason food services have passed on Otwell Miller Academy, Padgett said. The other reasons have been the lack of a kitchen at the school and the school’s small size.

The school is taking steps to remedy one of the issues food service companies cited with the construction of a kitchen.

At the board meeting Monday, the Otwell Miller Academy board heard a presentation from Jeremiah Pitts of J&M Refrigeration about the estimated cost of installing a kitchen. Pitts works in the restaurant industry and is familiar with what professional kitchens need. He estimated the cost of adding a kitchen to be between $10,000 and $18,000, depending on if the school purchases new or used equipment.

Padgett will now take the estimate and plan to the Friends of Otwell board to get permission to pursue the project. The Friends of Otwell, not the school, owns the school building. Padgett doesn’t expect there to be any issues.

Even with a kitchen, however, the school won’t be cooking meals on site. Instead, Padgett said, they warm and plate pre-cooked food. And Padgett is still struggling to get food service companies interested in partnering on a program.

If no food service companies sign on to a partnership, Padgett said, the school will have to forego offering free and reduced lunch this year, instead offering a program where kids can either pay full price for their lunches or bring their lunch. That style program eliminates the need for some staff positions such as the certified nutritionist.

Even if the school can’t launch a food program that includes free and reduced price options this year, Padgett said, the school will keep working toward one. He expects to have a better idea of the food program’s immediate future at the end of the month when the school’s request for proposals from food service companies expires.

“Our ultimate goal is to offer the same programs as other schools,” Padgett said. “It’s frustrating for us that it moves at a snail’s pace instead of a hare’s.”




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