Future of pandemic free lunch program unknown
SHERIDAN — In a year when many faced hunger for the first time, school employees stepped up, serving meals to more children than ever under unprecedented circumstances.
Food insecurity affects 12 million children in the U.S. and about 23,500 children in Wyoming, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a nationwide hunger crisis. In Wyoming, one in four children struggle with food insecurity, according to the Wyoming Hunger Initiative.
To help, school districts across Wyoming that participate in the National School Lunch Program have been able to provide free meals to kids, no questions asked, since the onset of the pandemic. From March to December of 2020, the Wyoming Department of Education reimbursed seven million lunches, 4.5 million breakfasts and 127,000 snacks just in Wyoming, said Tamra Jackson, child nutrition programs state director with the WDE.
“The local food service directors and staff in the schools deserve all the credit for their passion, caring and hard work to take care of the kids in their communities,” Jackson said.
In March of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a nationwide extension of several waivers that will allow for children to continue to receive meals for free through the summer of 2021.
“We will do everything we can to make sure children get access to healthy, nutritious meals regardless of their families’ financial circumstances,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. “Our child nutrition professionals are doing a heroic job ensuring kids across the country have proper nutrition throughout this public health emergency, oftentimes with limited resources.”
Sheridan County School District 1 participates in the National School Lunch Program for grades kindergarten through five, and operates its own food service program for grades six through 12, explained Jeremy Smith, business manager for SCSD1. The district began offering free grab-and-go meals in the summer of 2020, and transitioned to free in-school lunches for grades K-5 when school resumed last September.
“Since about mid-September, all of our school lunches have been free to any (K-5) kid who comes through. It has been kind of amazing, frankly,” Smith said. “We’ve gotten a higher reimbursement, and there are all kinds of things that are happening in the background, but we have been able to serve every (K-5) student a free lunch who wants it.”
In Sheridan County School District 2, Sheridan Junior High School has also offered free meals under the National School Lunch Program. Head cook Jennifer Rodriguez said her staff has definitely seen an increase in the number of students eating school lunch each day.
“This spring, we are feeding about 100 more students a day than usual,” Rodriguez said.
To adapt to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, she said they bag everything from condiments to meals and restructured the lunch lines to streamline students picking up their food.
“We have recently added extra fruits and veggies for students, because we had to put the salad bar on hold,” she said. “The school created a new bell schedule to accommodate students eating in six waves instead of three, so they can distance 6 feet apart while eating.”
Linda Finnerty with the WDE said that the National School Lunch Program has been around since the 1940s, and it will continue after the pandemic is over. Whether meals will remain free into the next academic year is unknown, and historically, whether a lunch was free, reduced or paid for by families was based on a national USDA income eligibility chart.
“We are not sure what the 2021-22 school year will look like at this point,” Finnerty said, adding that the USDA said it will release guidance this month regarding the upcoming school year.
“Once the guidance is released, we will work with the schools to prepare for next school year,” she said. “The waivers allowing free meals to be served to all students have been very important to help families deal with the financial stress of COVID. The schools have been very appreciative of the ability to have all the students eat free this school year.”
That gratitude goes many ways.
"I'm so grateful for my staff who have been flexible and willing to adapt to these changes,” Rodriguez said. “They've stayed true to their commitment to feeding children nutritious meals and working together."
In SCSD1, planning for meals during a year when previous standards may not apply has been a process of trial and error.
“Our staff, and certainly our cooks in our schools, have done a crazy good job of adapting,” Smith said. “This year, because we had never had a situation where it was free to every kid, our cooks, the first couple of weeks, were trying to out-guess it a little bit,” Smith said. “They thought, ‘If in a normal year, we would serve 180 lunches, we are going to serve 200 today.’ Sometimes they hit the mark, and sometimes they were a little under, and sometimes they were a little over.
“But it is great, great work. They made their best guess based on what they know about their kids,” Smith said. “They make the impossible seem routine, and it is unbelievable. I couldn’t be prouder of their work this year, when we are throwing tons of stuff at them. But they have just adapted so well.”