Tuesday’s fare at the St. Peter High School cafeteria was a classic kid favorite.

Tacos, tater tots, corn chips and those delicious cinnamon-sugar pastries called churros, which get their curious shape after being piped through a star-shaped nozzle. And, of course, plenty of milk.

So why were there two half-eaten plates sitting on a corner table, with mom nibbling timidly at the edges of a flour tortilla? Where were the kids, and why weren’t they eating their tacos?

Well, they were indulging in another classic kid favorite: Corduroy, and the case of his missing button.

“They got so excited that they only ate half their meal,” said Janice Page of her two young daughters, Chloe and Zoe, who were a few feet away enjoying an afternoon read.

“They said, ‘Mom — the chocolate milk filled us up!’”

Education experts have long grappled with the fact some students lose critical reading skills during the summer, only to return in the fall behind schedule.

Research has concluded that some summer slide is normal, but is often accelerated due to a lack of summer literacy opportunities.

Only half of all 5-year-olds have been told a story by a family member in the past year, according to the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics. Fewer than half of those same children have visited a library.

Knowing that access to books benefits all students, many school districts focus summer literacy programs on simply putting books into kids’ hands.

Thus St. Peter’s new Read-N-Feed program.

“We know achievement gaps widen during the summer,” said Ytive Prafke, program coordinator for the district. “So this program is all about exposure to reading and access to literacy.”

St. Peter’s Read-N-Feed program is open to all students up to 18 years old — including non-district residents and preschool-age children. There are literacy activities planned for each age group and every student receives a free meal.

There is no cost to the school district because the Minnesota Department of Education reimburses such programs if held at qualifying school sites (eligibility is determined by regional free-and-reduced lunch percentages).

In addition, the Minnesota Valley Action Council provides a handful of employees to help with both cleaning and playing while the city is offering transit discounts to area families who need help with transportation.

Prafke said such collaboration is critical with public agencies facing tighter budgets and fewer resources. Ellen Conover, a liaison between the county and school district, said such programs also serve families who are cutting back in light of their own slumping budgets.

“With school out, the structure changes for families,” Conover said. “This program keeps kids well-fed and they’re still reading, so they don’t lose skills over the summer.”

Rachel Lager, a soon-to-be-graduate of South Central College, is one of the MVAC workers who specifically chose the Read-N-Feed program as her summer employment spot. She wants to work as a school paraprofessional after finishing college, so the fit was natural.

As a handful of students sat, clearly enraptured, by the tale of SpongeBob SquarePants and the no-show princess and a contingent of high school kids conversed over trays of food, Lager rattled off a handful of reasons she enjoys her time at Read-N-Feed.

But she blushed a little when asked about reading aloud.

“We take turns reading to the littlest ones,” Lager said. “My turn is coming tomorrow.”

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