As the new school year gets underway, some students are in classrooms and others are at home but one thing is now clear: all kids can get free school meals. That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program, has extended the pandemic provisions it introduced last spring, which include eliminating the requirement that families apply for reduced-fees or free meals.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement on Aug. 31.
Districts welcomed the news, though Kim Belstene, the food service director at the Belmond-Klemme Community School District in north Iowa, says there’s one big caveat.
“They’ll be free until Dec. 31 or until funds run out,” she says. “So what if you continue to feed and then find out that, oh, they ran out of money in October and you fed through November?”
She says federal reimbursement usually takes about a month so some families that wouldn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals might unwittingly run up a tab, and districts, too, could be left with bills they weren’t anticipating.
For now, the School Nutrition Association is claiming a partial victory, after lobbying for months.
“In this economy, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in food-insecure families. We know millions more kids will depend on school meals this year,” says spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner. She says whether in the school building or at home on a computer, kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.
“And this year we’re asking so much more of our students. They have to figure out distance learning or modified school day schedules,” she says. “We should not allow them to worry about whether they’ll get a healthy meal.”
Pratt-Heavner says while all districts can offer free meals, it does require feeding under the summer meals program rather than the school lunch program.
“We anticipate the large majority of schools will take advantage of these flexibilities, but there may be a few that elect not to.” For example, she said a district that started the year providing meals under the lunch program and is concerned the free extension won’t last may not want to flip to the summer system only to flip back. The two programs require different record-keeping.
The demand for free meals increased dramatically during this pandemic summer. In June, Illinois served almost 11 million free meals, more than seven times the 2019 figure. Iowa served more than four times as many meals this June as last year.
In Wright County, Iowa, where Belmond-Klemme is located, 56 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2017-2018, according to the 2020 County Health Rankings database from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Belstene says normally, as children pass through the lunch line, a computer counts them and tabulates what, if anything, they owe. Neither the students nor the adult operating the computer sees who falls into which category. The district is committed to allowing all children to eat, even if they have a negative balance in their lunch account. Not all districts have that flexibility in their budgets, but with free meals approved for all students, Belstene says all they have to do now is count the meals going out.
For the kids, the lunchline looks a little different this year. Only one grade files into the lunchroom at a time and everyone’s wearing a mask or face shield.
“They walk down and grab their milk, and then come through the line, and we have everything in a bag at that point for them,” Belstene says.
On a rainy Friday, the sack contained hot, foil-wrapped pizza crunchers (mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce for dipping), baby carrots and ranch dressing, cantaloupe slices, Fritos and a granola bar. From the kitchen, the students pass through the lunchroom full of empty tables and head back to their classrooms to eat. On nice days, they can take their lunches outside instead.
At the junior-senior high, Belstene says the students stay in their classrooms and food service staff bring the bag lunches to them. She says there are too many students to maintain the necessary pandemic social distance in a lunchline there.
With everyone using to-go packaging, Belstene says her supplier has recommended ordering only what she needs right away, and to expect substitutions for popular items like chips and the now ubiquitous brown paper bags.
Lunchtime Solutions, a private company that contracts to provide food service in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota, has also been preparing for shortages and for meals that might be handed out in a drive-by scenario for a district that is 100 percent online, served on trays in the lunchroom for a district functioning almost like normal, or delivered to classrooms.
Heather Wahl, menu database and design manager and compliance coordinator at Lunchtime Solutions, says the company prepared a base menu for fall with extreme flexibility.
“It could be adapted very easily depending on what the district’s mitigation efforts were,” she says, “and change almost instantaneously.”
Every menu has an option that can be served hot on a tray, another one that is hot but able to be packaged to-go, and a cold option, like a sandwich, wrap or salad. Plus, each meal always includes milk, fruit and vegetables.
At Belmond Klemme Junior/Senior High, Kim Belstene sends out a few meals each day for students learning online. About 60 of the district’s 725 students chose that option.
Belstene says if a COVID-19 exposure quarantines kids at home—as has already happened to the football team—her staff will provide meals for families to pick-up.
She’s confident no one is going hungry, and she says the kids are actually happier with fresh raw vegetables than a cup of steamed peas.
Despite the changes and challenges, she says her mission remains crystal-clear.
“It’s just what we do. No matter how you get ’em fed, you just feed ’em.”