By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The authors of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act must have figured one way to improve child nutrition would be to improve the kitchens that prepare and serve meals to so many of them � school kitchens.
That is, presumably, the reason the legislation included a $100 million school food service equipment grant. Through a formula allocation, Oklahoma received 1.5 percent of that, or $1.5 million, to go to the purchase of everything from convection ovens to walk-in freezers, milk boxes to steamers.
At Roy Clark Elementary School in the Union public school district, the kitchen feeds about 550 kids every day. It's a big job, but one that's gotten easier with the purchase of a new $18,000 steamer.
"We're excited about the opportunity the stimulus money has provided us," said Jarod Mendenhall, Union�s assistant superintendent for support services.
Jarod Mendenhall said if not for the stimulus funds, they probably would have had to buy a steamer similar to the one they had before. He said the stimulus has enabled them to triple their cooking capacity.
"It's good for these schools to have these things so we can offer ready, hot food every single day," Mendenhall said.
At Capitol Hill elementary school, in the Oklahoma City public school district, the kitchen feeds 900 kids a day. They also just bought a new steamer. They didn�t have room for one as big as Union�s, and settled for an $11,000 model.
The school�s cafeteria manager is ecstatic about it: "It's going to be a tremendous help. I'm so happy!"
Brindy Embery said with schools in her district no longer deep frying, she relies heavily on her steamers, and one of them had broken down.
"[That] kinda made it hard to get everything cooked on a timely basis, and prepared, so we could feed the kids," Embery said.
In all, the State Department of Education received more than $23 million in equipment grant requests from 833 schools. After reviewing the requests, and screening for level of need, they awarded grants to 200 schools in 189 school districts.
See the full list of grants awarded to Oklahoma schools.
"We tried to spread it,� said Dee Baker, Oklahoma�s executive director of child nutrition programs, �not only in metropolitan areas, but the rural areas as well. Everyone has equipment needs."
But not everyone thinks the grants were such a good thing.
Education consultant Amy James said she doesn't doubt that districts have equipment needs, but she does doubt whether any of them exercised fiscal restraint in making these purchases.
"I mean, right here, we have $10,600 for a skillet�It seems to me that this looked like manna from heaven or free money to the districts."
James said if Washington truly wanted to improve child nutrition through public schools, they could have easily found a better way to spend $100 million.
"I would love to have seen this program have guidance to say perhaps we need to start publishing the nutritional value of the meals that are being served, perhaps the money should have been used to increase the nutritional value of the meals being served."
But in the schools themselves, in the kitchens especially, Baker said there's been no beef with the program.
"There's been tremendous support for it. I just wish we had more money to give them," Baker said.