Food service directors in Challis, Mackay, Salmon and Arco schools said students will have increased opportunities to try their food since the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the free meals program for the rest of the school year.

The program is part of the federal government’s aid to struggling school districts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food service directors said students had mixed reactions to free meals. Suzy Palmer in Salmon said while there have been slight increases in students eating the school’s lunches this semester, the increases have been intermittent. It mostly depends on what’s on the menu that day, she said.

With an enrollment decline at Salmon Pioneer Elementary School, Palmer said on average she’s handing out fewer meals this year. Palmer said she fed about 180 to 200 elementary kids each day last year, but this year it’s between 170 and 190.

Carolyn Blattner with the Butte County School District in Arco said she’s serving about the same number of kids as she has in the past, even with the free meal option.

Blattner explained before the pandemic, there were already options for students to receive free or reduced-price meals in the district. The students and parents who already took advantage of those options have continued, while Blattner said the students who preferred to eat off-campus or bring lunch from home remained mostly the same.

Blattner expected as much when the USDA first implemented the program, which is why she didn’t order extra food at the beginning of the semester. She saw how kids reacted to free meals during the summer in Arco, and they didn’t take advantage of it then in large numbers.

Colie Carlson said it’s a different story in Mackay. She said more kids have come in to try school food this semester, particularly with breakfast. Last year, Carlson said she and her workers would serve about 20 breakfasts a day. This year, it’s bumped up to 50.

The opposite is true in Challis, according to Food Service Director Sara Jones, who said in an email to the Messenger “the lunch numbers were lower this year for September and October than they were the same months in 2019 when all meals were not free.”

Jones said the USDA program is designed to encourage students and parents to take part in the district’s food program.

Carlson said it’s good for students to try their school’s meals. She and the other school food workers strive to deliver healthy, tasty meals. Some kids are even discovering a preference for school lunches, she said, with some caveats.

“A couple kids have come in and thanked me for the good meal,” she said. “They’ll also tell me ideas about what they would like to see on the menu, so we’re getting a lot of feedback and appreciation.”

None of the food service directors knew if the free meals would be extended beyond May. Carlson said she would like to see it continue for the duration of the pandemic, but she acknowledged that might not be the case.