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Schools could lose free meals at the end of the year with no federal action

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — A federal waiver that allows school districts across the country to provide free meals for all students will expire at the end of the year, and a replacement or extension is uncertain.

The district delivered meals to children for free over the summer, and it kept giving students meals at no cost when classes began on Aug. 17. The district was preparing, and even announced to families, that it would have to return to paid meals on Sept. 1 because of the expiring state waiver, but last-minute federal changes were handed down on Aug. 31 that allowed the district to continue feeding students for free.

If the waiver expires, 10 schools in the Rowan-Salisbury district will be eligible for free meals in addition to standard free and reduced programs, but the prospect is still disappointing for the people behind the district’s nutrition program.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann, along with her staff, describe feeding all students for free as part of their education as a dream.

“If the kids are hungry they can’t learn,” Altmann said. “They don’t pay to ride the bus to school. In my mind I think free meals should just be part of their public education.”

Altmann said the ability to offer universal free meals also takes away stigmas that usually exist. When no one is paying for meals at school, it places everyone on an even playing field.

Carolina Hernandez, nutrition manager at Hurley Elementary School, said the year has been a challenge, but the programs has gone well. Hurley is also the hub for virtual students to pick up meals for the West area.

Hernandez said she sees the need for the meals around the county. If the waiver expires without action, she said it would be upsetting. As a parent, she can see how others would be concerned.

If there is no extension, the district will return to the national school breakfast and lunch programs. Then, students will have to pay for meals or not based on their status.

Every school has been approved for the At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program, which feeds students who attend after school programs. But schools need at least 50% of children on free or reduced lunch to qualify for the program. The program is available for students participating programs athletics and driver education. As long as there is an enrichment component, students can take advantage. The program was in three of the district’s elementary schools last year.

Altmann said not many districts use the program because of challenging paperwork, but the department wants to do it because it benefits the children. The non-congregant waiver, which allows meals to be taken off-site, has been extended through June.

Students whose families receive food stamps are automatically eligible for free or reduced lunch, and others are identified based on household income in free and reduced applications.

If the district notices a student not eating or accumulating a lot of meal charges, Altmann said staff will reach out and try to help.

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