Written by Betsy Abraham Thursday, 18 July 2013 00:00
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday in July and the auditorium at Dryden Street School is anything but quiet. It may be summer, but the sunny room is filled with children, laughing and talking at tables with their friends. Most importantly, the children are eating a nutritious lunch, made fresh that morning and provided for them absolutely free.
Providing students free breakfast and lunch is part of the Westbury School District’s summer school program. Meals are provided at Westbury High School and Dryden, where there are numerous classes throughout the day. The district has around 85 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, and summer school program principal Cheri Debellis says that a full stomach makes a world of difference in a child’s education.
“Studies show children who are not hungry learn better. When you’re not worried about when you’re going to eat next or get your next meal from, you can focus better,” Debellis said. “It’s a huge part of a child’s academic success.”
For some children, the district-provided meals are the only ones they eat throughout the day. However, the free meals aren’t just for students; they’re available to any child 18 and under in the community. While adults are not allowed to eat (as per state guidelines), any child can come in during meal times and enjoy a freshly made meal that is not only tasty, but healthy.
The district has made a huge push toward healthy eating in the last few years. Students in the summer school program have plates loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits, and are treated to whole grain breads and one percent or fat free milk. A typical meal includes whole grain pasta salad with milk and a fruit, or turkey and cheese on a bagel.
“We give them as many vegetables as possible,” said Karen Flaim, manager of food services for the school district. “Even if they don’t take it the first or second time, we try to keep showing them so they try it.”
Mike Gongas, a nutrition specialist at the district, says that Westbury has one of the top nutrition programs in the state.
“We really work hard to educate the children as to what’s good [in order] to get them into good eating habits,” Gongas said. “We’ve gotten rid of bad foods that cause weight gain and bad nutrition, and it’s worked really well.”
Not only does Westbury excel in providing healthy meals, but Gongas says that the district is set apart from others in the level of care and dedication to providing for a child’s needs.
“In most cases, school lunch is low on the totem pole. Westbury puts as much emphasis in nutrition for children as they do feeding the brain,” Gongas said. “It’s as important as anything else and that’s very seldom you see that in other districts.”
Funding for the program is provided by state and federal grants, and currently around 400 students take advantage of the free meals every weekday. But Debellis invites other community members who are in need to bring their children to the high school or Dryden Street School.
“It’s an open site. We have food and a place to eat. We’re ready,” Debellis said.
Free meals are provided at Westbury High School at 1 Post Road, Old Westbury until August 14 and Dryden Street School at 545 Dryden Street, Westbury until August 9. Breakfast at the high school is from 6:30 to 8 a.m., lunch is from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Breakfast at Dryden is from 8 to 9 a.m., lunch is from 11:05 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Children must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, contact Dryden Street School at 874-1600.