With the start of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with schools to provide flexibility and waivers to give all students access to nutritional meals. Yet, this may come to an end next school year if the USDA chooses to revert to the old ways of having economically disadvantaged children apply for free or reduced lunch.
Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, said that through pandemic waivers and reimbursements, virtually all schools offer universally free meals to students. This has helped reduce food insecurity in children as well as minimized crowding at lunch checkouts. Free meals for all students also allows schools to predict how much food to order and prepare.
"We have sprung into action to work directly with districts, offering 14 different flexibilities, significant new resources," Dean said. "Schools are able to to serve meals universally free, which has made the whole process easier and more streamlined for them."
One of the waivers is part of the Communities Eligibility Program, which was originally created pre-pandemic to allow schools and districts with at least 40% of students qualifying for free meals to make them free to all students. With the pandemic, USDA Food and Nutrition Services waived this requirement.
As of Friday, the Louisiana Department of Education reported 1,087 of 1,195 eligible and near-eligible schools in the state, roughly 90%, have adopted the program.
Jo Lynne Correro, director of child nutrition services for Ouachita Parish Schools, said her district started offering universal free breakfast and lunch across the district two years ago when the USDA made such programming an option across the country.
However, Correro said that school districts have been told that come August 2022, the USDA will revert to the old system where students must apply for free or reduced lunch. Correro also said this notice is subject to change as the school year progresses.
"The School Nutrition Association has been pushing for universal free meals for a number of years," Correro said. "It behooves us to also do that because we were getting more reimbursement. It just shows that we could do universal free meals, breakfast and lunch, if the money's there from the USDA."
Emily Chatelain with nonprofit The Three O'Clock Project said that universal free meals helps reduce the stigma of being enrolled in a food program. If the USDA chooses to go back to the old ways of free lunch next school year, there could be some families who do not get access to the food programming they need, either because of stigma or issues related to inaccessibility.
Correro said to get ahead of next year, eligible families for free or reduced lunch should submit their application before the school year ends, just in case. This would prevent families from needing to shell out money for school meals within the first 30 days of the school year. It would also make families eligible for the summer Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, a program where families can receive money to purchase food items during summer break, should the program be renewed this year. In order to be eligible in time, families cannot apply for summer P-EBT after the school year ends.
To locate the necessary form, Correro said to visit opsb.net, click on "Departments" then "Child Nutrition Services." Families can also visit myschoolapps.com. Families can contact the department of Child Nutrition Services with any questions at 318-398-1990.
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This article originally appeared on Monroe News-Star: Most schools nationwide have universal free meals — for now