RSS continuing free meals, still encouraging free or reduced applications

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, July 7, 2021

SALISBURY — A decision handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture means students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools will eat free for the next year, but families can still benefit by applying for  free or reduced meals.

The USDA issued a number of waivers on April 20 for public school nutrition departments to use through the end of next school year, including extending its seamless summer option. In effect, the extension allows the free meals served during summer meal programs to be extended through the regular school year and served in school settings. The meals will follow the same nutrition requirements of regular school meals.

RSS Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann confirmed the district will be using the option, which is a subset of the National School Lunch Program. Meal patterns and feeding programs are a complicated nexus of state and federal rules, options for school districts and nutrition and purchasing processes.

Altmann said, in effect, students will be able to get regular meals during the school day like they would in a normal school year, but they will universally not be charged. Students will be able to purchase extras like more servings or drinks.

The meals will be free for everyone regardless of whether families turn in applications for free and reduced lunch, but the district is still encouraging families to apply because they benefit from doing so and it helps maintain the district’s Title I funding for schools that serve a large number of low-income families.

As an example, Altmann said students who qualify for free or reduced lunch can be exempted from fees for exams like the SAT.

Earlier this year, the district was planning to return to a regular model with purchased meals after more than a full year of feeding kids for free during the pandemic. Altmann, a proponent of free meals as part of a students’ education, said the new waiver was a good surprise.

“There is a lot of talk about trying to continue it. I hope it does one day,” Altmann said.

The pattern the district will return to as part of the waiver will include requirements for healthy produce like leafy greens and legumes that were not required by meal waivers during the last year, but Altmann said the district tried to keep those nutritious foods on the menu anyway and the district managed to evade supply problems that affected other nutrition departments throughout the country.

The department will be reimbursed for each meal offered to students as long as students take at least three components, including a fruit or vegetable.

While the vast majority of students will eat free, the district is not allowed to offer meals to the students at Summit Virtual Academy. The district was able to feed Summit students during the previous school year thanks to other waivers that expired in June, but Altmann said the USDA has given clear guidance it does not allow the meal program for the virtual school without brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Altmann said the news was disappointing and the department is exploring ways it can to get meals for the students at Summit next school year.

“We love to feed kids,” Altmann said, noting officials tried every angle they could to make it happen.

Beyond free meals, the USDA is offering increased reimbursements for districts that take the free meals option. Districts are also able to offer meals in non-group settings and have been given more flexibility on meal times.

The department has recently expanded other nutrition benefits, including expanding pandemic food stamps and allocating more funding for the Women, Infants and Children program.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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