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RSS students will still eat free after last-minute federal changes

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools received a surprise announcement Monday that it will be able to continue to feed all students lunch for free.

The district was prepared to begin charging for lunch today because a state waiver allowing it to provide free meals expired at the end of August. The district was planning to use a federal waiver to continue free lunches, but some rule changes made that impossible until Monday, when the USDA extended the waiver through the end of December. RSS already had the transition to paid meals planned and announced the change to families on Friday.

“We’re just kind of in shock right now because it has been a tough weekend, worrying about this and how we were going to do what we could do and feed as many kids as we needed to,” said District Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann.

Altmann said the district had finished building its online ordering system and purchased equipment for touchless transactions. Altmann said the district will still use those systems and students will be able to purchase add-on items in addition to regular meals. The district is happy with the change, she said.

“It is our dream for kids to get free meals,” Altmann said. “We are on cloud nine right now”

If a new waiver did not come through, the district was still planning to provide a free breakfast to all students. Ten schools in the district were still eligible to receive free lunches as well.

South Rowan High School Nutrition Director Joe Harris said he was ecstatic when he heard the news on Monday.

“I was hoping this would happen,” Harris said, adding delivering meals during the summer has shown him there are needy children throughout Rowan County.

Harris said at South there have been a number of students who are close but did not quite qualify for free lunch. He said the phone call about the waiver was a blessing.

Altmann said the district’s menu will be expanding, too, with more options available to students and different calorie contents for elementary, middle and high school. The summer meals pattern the district was following was set, but following the national pattern will allow the freedom to make some changes.

“It’s going to be good for everybody,” Altmann said. “It’s going to be good for the state, it’s going to be good for the country and it’s going to be good for the kids, and that’s all that matters.”

The district spent the summer delivering thousands of meals to students each day via yellow school buses. That was made possible by another waiver, and it made the meals available for pick up from schools as well. That pick-up model was adapted for virtual students at the beginning of this school year.

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