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RSS students will eat free for the rest of the school year

Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY An extension has been granted through June on a federal waiver that allows Rowan-Salisbury Schools to feed all students for free.

The waiver previously expired at the end of December. District Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann said she expects the waiver to end at some point, but for now she is happy. Altmann said she believes children should be fed at school as part of their education.

“With everything going on, it’s a blessing we’ll be able to do that for the rest of the school year,” Altmann said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which largely governs public school nutrition programs, has issued a litany of waivers in connection to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are waivers for meal times, patterns, non-congregant meals, meal pickup and more. There are more than 20 waivers and flexibilities that have been granted to North Carolina nutrition programs by the department since March, some of which have been extended repeatedly.

According to the USDA, free meals are made possible by a waiver that allows schools to keep using the Summer Food Service Program rather than reverting to the typical national lunch and breakfast programs.

Altmann said participation in the nutrition program is increasing every day, but it is still down somewhat despite the free meals. Altmann said low participation at Summit Virtual Academy, which serves about 3,000 online-only students, is the reason for the decline.

She surveyed families about the issue and found transportation is an obstacle for some families. The solution will be meal bundles for students who need them containing five breakfasts and lunches. The bundles will include cooking and storage instructions. Kids will get some cafeteria favorites such as baked ziti and barbecue in the bundles. The district will use its summer meals buses and vans to try and bridge the gap.

Altmann said the national programs have more restraints on what can be served to students

“We’re trying to keep the menus close to what they got when they were in school,” Altmann said.

Students can carry meals away because of separate, non-congregant meal waiver which also runs through June. Altmann said the department has to come up with a plan to serve students at the virtual school after the waivers go away.

“We have been working with the mindset that this is going to be a permanent thing for us,” Altmann said.

When the waiver was slated to disappear at the end of August, Altmann got every school approved for universal free breakfast, and got every school approved for the at-risk after school meals program a few weeks ago.

Altmann said not many districts participate in the after school program because of the amount of work required for the program. It will provide each student a hot meal after school. That program will begin in a few weeks and provide even more free meals for students.

The district is still encouraging families to fill out free and reduced meal applications not only because it also provides waivers for fees on standardized entrance exams like the SAT.

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