RANCHESTER — A new Sheridan County School District 1 program provides Tongue River kids the opportunity to eat an affordable midday meal.

Monday marked the first day of the SCSD1 free summer lunch program. It will take place at the old Tongue River Elementary building every Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. until Aug. 16 and is open to anyone ages 3 through 18.

This is the first year for the program, which involves several different organizations in the valley. Children participating in Tongue River Valley Community Center and TR Child’s Place programs will have free lunch throughout the summer. The TRVCC is also offering free transportation Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Dayton Community Church is doing the same on Wednesdays.

SCSD1 business manager Jeremy Smith said discussions about the program began in early December and talks started in earnest in February. SCSD1 trustee Karen Walters manages the Community Cupboard and came up with the idea of expanding the food program. SCSD1 administration asked food service director Dennis Decker about some possibilities and then Smith, Walters and Decker talked several times to figure out the details. The Wyoming Department of Education helped provide outlines and brainstorm ideas.

Once the guidelines were agreed upon, Smith and Decker had a few months of paperwork and applications to the WDE.

“TRE has been a part of that program for a long, long time, and so this just expanded our application with the National School Lunch Program,” Smith said. “It really is, in the simplest terms, just a continuation of our lunch program that we had at Tongue River Elementary. The most significant difference is that it’s free to every student who shows up.”

The application process was both tedious and time-consuming, but Smith said it went fairly smooth because of a group effort.

“We’ve got all these folks who are coming together to make this work for the kids who need it, so that’s been great,” Smith said.

Decker worked to get the old TRE kitchen recertified, authorized and inspected. There was also a training process online and in-person through the WDE for the SCSD1 cook who will be serving meals.

“Fortunately, the meal pattern is very similar, almost identical to the school lunch program,” Decker said.

The lunches are slightly simpler because the kitchen is older and has more limited equipment, but otherwise have an entree, side and fruit or veggie because SCSD1 still has to follow school lunch program health and nutrition guidelines.

SCSD1 anticipates serving about 100 students every day: about 20 from TRCP; around 25 from a summer reading program at TRE; 20 to 25 from the TRVCC; and an additional 25 to 30 kids from Dayton and Ranchester.

Decker briefly looked into a summer lunch program a few years ago, but it didn’t logistically work out.

“It became serious this year,” Decker said. “It’s got to have a certain amount of community support, also. It isn’t something you just want to jump into just because. You want to be able to support the program and make sure you get to the families and children in need.”

The organizers think the program will ideally help reduce stress for parents and children alike.

“It’s sort of a win-win where the kids from the disadvantaged families get a little help for the summer,” Decker said.

The effort is just beginning, but with so many community members onboard, it figures to be a full summer for Tongue River kids.