The Haines School cafeteria will soon welcome a group of seniors – but not twelfth-graders. A local volunteer organization is partnering with the school to test out a weekly lunch program that would cross generations. It might sound innocent but the idea caused concern at a recent school board meeting.
The school cafeteria is typically a place for students to take a break, relax, chat with friends and eat some nutritious food. In Haines, it could soon also be a place for learning.
Valerie McCandless is one of the Volunteer Haines! committee members that contacted the school last month about starting up a new lunch program.
“The school seems like a great match for having healthy meals for seniors and an opportunity to mix the generations together,” said McCandless.
Senior citizens can eat lunch at the Senior Center Monday through Thursday. Now, they’re looking to add another day.
“The big thing that we’re looking at is that seniors are without a Friday lunch program for the last few years,” said McCandless. “And we’d like to develop a program where they’re not going for that three day period of time without having the option for a meal.”
The idea is to eventually bring seniors and students together each Friday for lunch at the school, paid for by the volunteer committee. But it would start out with just one pilot meal. At their latest meeting, the school board voted unanimously to approve the test meal. Here’s board member Mike Wilson.
“I do hope that all these pieces fall together because I think this is a great opportunity,” said Wilson. “I’m one of those people that eat with the seniors two or three times a week, and they are just a wealth of so much information. And fun and laughter. They’re just a great, great group of people.”
But many in the room, like Superintendent Tony Habra, insisted on caution going forward.
“I think there’s certainly value in connecting our community at all age groups together,” said Habra. “Groups can learn together and speak with each other, that wouldn’t hurt one little bit. That said, we also need to be mindful of the fact that there are restaurants in town who may feel this is the school district infringing upon their right to be able to sell meals on Fridays.”
Board member Sarah Swinton reiterated that concern.
“We’re not here as a restaurant ourselves,” said Swinton. “I would like to see it as a pilot program, just to see if there is interaction like you say – I want us to be real—the cafeteria is for kids, not for the community of Haines.”
In October, some local restaurants pushed back on an idea proposed by Habra to invite community members to try school lunch. Habra says that was just a proposal and the invitation was never actually opened.
Jim Studley is on the committee pushing for this. He said they’re not going to be taking business away from restaurants.
“Ninety percent of the people won’t eat at the restaurant on Friday if there is no senior lunch,” said Studley. “They’re not going to go to a restaurant. They eat at the senior center because it’s very inexpensive.”
He said the meals would be a learning opportunity for students.
“If you look at the individuals in our community that are 80, 90, 100-years-old, this is walking history. You can draw stuff out from them that you cannot get from a textbook,” said Studley.
Habra said the educational component is the most important part and, if they don’t see a connection happening between seniors and students, the lunches will not continue.
“We can’t just be a provider of food,” said Habra. “It has to be more than that. This is an educational institution and I really want to see – I think there’s value and possible value in learning here. That’s why I think it’s worth piloting. But I’m not necessarily committing to anything long-term. It’s got to be more than just us giving food to seniors.”
Board president Anne Marie Palmeiri said they’ll need to make sure both groups are working toward creating that connection.
“What is going to be done with the children to foster this relationship with the adults, and then what is going to be done with the adults in order to foster the relationship?” asked Palmeiri.
The pilot lunch is scheduled for January. After that, the school will reassess the program and decide whether to make it permanent.