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Six-year-old Emmet Young dishes up food in the salad bar line Monday at Longfellow Elementary School. This summer, more and more families are finding the meal program at Longfellow may be the only opportunity in Mitchell for a family to sit down to a nutritious lunch that costs less than one fast food combo meal. (Laura Wehde/Republic Photo)

Longfellow lunch program: 'You can feed your whole family for a few dollars'

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It's not dining on a dime, but it's pretty close. This summer, more and more families are finding the meal program at Longfellow Elementary may be the only opportunity in Mitchell for a family to sit down to a nutritious lunch that costs less than one fast food combo meal.

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Though the classrooms are closed, the Longfellow cafeteria is seeing a lot of traffic since school let out -- around 330 diners a day, said Sean Moen, food services director for the Mitchell School District. Three years ago, the daily average was 80.

Mitchell mom Lana Briggs accompanies her three kids to the cafeteria two or three times a week.

"You can feed your whole family for a few dollars. And it's usually food the kids like," she said.

Meals are $3 per adult and free for anyone under 18. There are no applications or forms to fill out, and no one has to prove he or she needs financial assistance.

"All they have to do is walk through the door," Moen said. "With the economy, the shape that's in, it's just a huge value. We have whole families -- five, six people -- come in and eat for six dollars. You can't beat that anywhere."

An average of 295 kids eat at Longfellow daily -- some from one of the summer kids' clubs, a few from inhome day cares, several with their parents, and many more who walk or bike over from their houses or the nearby city pool.

"We even have construction workers who work on the Longfellow site who come in," Moen said.

According to Moen, Longfellow is Mitchell's only summer meal site. The school also has the highest number of children receiving meal assistance during the school year, at 70 percent of the student body. Schools with more than 50 percent of their populations receiving free or reduced meals can automatically host a free summer meal program, Moen said. Federal funds keep the program going.

Katie Muntefering, who works with the Longfellow kids' club, eats in the cafeteria every day with her charges.

"I think it's great that they do this," Muntefering said. "The parents know that their kids are getting lunch. That's probably the most important meal of the day. And (the kids) like the food."

Entrees are common cafeteria food -- chicken strips and patties, casseroles, burgers, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, pizza, pasta -- coupled with a side like steamed vegetables and baked fries or chips and topped off with some type of fruit. To drink, there's juice, milk and water. Beyond the serving line, a produce bar offers around half a dozen types of fruits and vegetables, as well as salad.

In addition to the school district staff, two or three volunteers from the city's RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) are on hand to wipe tables and hand out milk cartoons. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Warm weather tends to improve turnout, Moen said, especially with the close proximity of the city pool. On one especially sweltering day, workers served tacos to 429 people.

When the pool closes due to rain, numbers tend to drop, Moen said.

"It's awesome that we're able to accommodate the needs of the community with this program," Moen said. "That makes you feel good."

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