Jana Eaton and Tyler Thornhill

Dayton School District’s food service director — and Jill-of-many-trades — Jana Eaton helps third-grader Tyler Thornhill get breakfast this morning at Dayton Elementary School. Today was the first day of school here and the first time the elementary school has benefitted from a federal breakfast and lunch program that feeds all students at no direct cost to families.

DAYTON — When the school year started here today, Dayton Elementary School and preschool students were able to eat breakfast and lunch free as part of the Community Eligibility Program, or CEP.

CEP is a federal program that allows schools with a certain number of low-income families to offer breakfast and lunch to students without collecting applications for the aid from families. Instead, schools are reimbursed for the food based on how many families in the district are receiving other help from aid programs such as food stamps or cash assistance.

This is the first time the stars have aligned for his district to qualify for the meal program, said Dayton School District Superintendent Doug Johnson.

“We’re interested in the impact. Out of 200 kids, we’ve only been feeding about 60.”

Getting CEP in place took more than stars, however. It took Jana Eaton.

It was more than two years ago that Eaton piled some of the district’s nutrition duties onto her own plate. The then-director of food services began experiencing a medical issue, so Eaton jumped in to do record reporting required by state and federal agencies.

That financial work assist allowed the district to keep the woman’s job open as she dealt with the illness, Eaton said, but it became apparent the food services director would not be able to return to work.

As things do, the situation dominoed that year when an audit by Washington state officials found some issues with the way the district was reporting its menu for the Child Nutrition Program. Eaton then worked on fixing that problem, and the truth dawned on her, she said with a laugh.

“I discovered I really liked food service.”

Eaton, employed by the school district for 20 years, added one more hat to those she already wore Monday through Friday and sometimes more. Her official title is “assistant to the superintendent,” but Eaton also handles the district’s accounting, is the college scholarship coordinator and now, food service director.

That part was like a duck taking to water.

Eaton and others plumped up the salad bar for the school’s only cafeteria, for starters. And Eaton connected with Spokane Produce, a wholesale distributor specializing in getting fresh food that kids will actually eat to schools and colleges.

The company understands school districts now have to view students — and their parents — as real consumers, said Brent Dallman, the company’s director of food service sales.

Dallman has guided districts in the Walla Walla Valley and elsewhere through the ever-evolving federal regulations around child nutrition for decades and through many food trends, he said.

Eaton was quick to see a vision for Dayton and eager to bring fresher food to the district, Dallman said.

“Dayton wanted to improve its program and get more participation. Everywhere does.”

Finding less expensive options for the fresh stuff meant there was grant money to cover that expense, allowing Eaton to use district food funds for the basics, she said.

“That was a big thing. I said, ‘I think we need to do this.’”

Then Eaton and others were able to start asking students what they really wanted for lunch.

“One day we noticed they were throwing away their teriyaki chicken. So we made popcorn chicken and offered sauces. We want to listen and do what the kids like,” she said.

“It’s a customer service approach … We’re always looking for programs that allow to us the best food we can get. We take surveys, we ask the kids, we continually try to find out what they will eat.”

This year there will be an off-campus, after-school snack option for high schoolers. That’s a demographic that would often rather go hungry than be seen getting free lunches, Eaton said.

“We really do offer a good lunch, we do, but we lose kids at lunch in high school.”

Those students will be able to drop by HomeStreet Bank on Main Street once school is over for a healthy snack, helping stave off hunger from missing lunch.

About 40 percent of the families of Dayton’s public school students meet criteria for some sort of government assistance, but some folks are reluctant to give such information to school officials, Eaton said.

That can make it tough for Dayton School District to qualify for programs and additional staff. That’s been true for the CEP paperwork in the past, too, she said.

“Working with our state program coordinator, I was able to get the information that qualified our elementary building for CEP.”

Like many rural school districts, Dayton has traditionally lost money on food service, including in unpaid meal debts, Eaton said.

“I’m just trying to get out the message that we want what’s best for our kids. If we can offer free breakfast and lunch I don’t see it can be any easier. We’re really working on getting kids to eat better.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.