The Cabot School District free summer lunch program is proving to be popular, particularly at Ward. In what would seem a turnabout, some summertime caregivers said going to school for lunch could now be used as a reward for good behavior.

“Oh yeah. They feel like they are being rewarded coming here,” Sarah Eldridge of Ward said as her charges went through the serving line. “They look forward to coming here and seeing their friends.”

It is an overall good deal, she said, “I don’t have to cook, and they get a healthy meal.”

School officials see the program as an early success.

“We have served at least 300 lunches each day. On one day, we topped 350,” Ward Central Elementary School food services director Shelly Coates said Friday. That happened in the first five days of the program.

The free lunches for children and adults will continue, Monday through Friday, through July 27, except for Wednesday, July 4.

The lunches are served 11 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. at Ward Central Elementary, 1570 Wilson Loop Road, at the junction with Peyton Street/Arkansas Highway 319, Ward; and at Westside Elementary, 1701 S. Second St., Cabot.

“I expect we will see more as the word gets out,” Coates said.

School superintendent Tony Thurman said the demand at Westside was lower.

“We’ve averaged about 125 a day there,” he said Monday.

In a press release, Erin Wilkes, Cabot Public Schools director of food services, said the program is open to everyone. Each meal served to a person 18 years old or younger is reimbursed through the state Department of Human Services; a “Share our Strengths” grant helps cover the costs of meals that are not reimbursed by DHS.

Thurman said Tuesday that the summer lunch program is successful on several levels. First, children are assured at least one meal a day, Monday through Friday, he said.

“There is a number of children throughout the school year who rely on the meals they get at school,” Thurman said. The summer lunch program makes sure they continue getting a meal.

Second, through the Sharing Our Strengths program, adults are taken care of also.

“I think it helps for them to make the trip for the kids,” he said.

Third, it gets a maximum return on the investment made in the schools, Thurman said. The programs helps keep the facilities in use, and not idle during the summer months.

During the first five days of the program, the number of lunches served has ranged from 300 to 350, Coates said.

Ward Central principal Dawn Verkler said a good meal is not the only benefit for the children.

“They can take some books home,” she said.

A lending library at the front of the cafeteria has gotten much use with the number of books taken home increasing each day, Verkler said. The shelves had been filled with books collected for the reading bus but were held at the school.

“It does not look like they will make it to the bus, but this is what they were collected for,” she said.

Many of those eating at Ward Central on Friday were either families, or groups made up of siblings, children of friends and others being cared for during the summer break.

“Oh. This is great,” Amanda Wilbers said. She and Kayla Looney had combined their respective charges into a single large group of 12.

“I don’t need to cook, they get a good meal and they get to have some fun with their friends. They would get pretty upset with me if I did not bring them,” Wilbers said.