Local schools will likely be forced to return to paid meals

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, March 30, 2022

SALISBURY — Students who were paying for meals at school before the COVID-19 pandemic began will likely have to do so again after a federal waiver was not extended.

Earlier this month, a major spending bill was introduced without provisions to extend waivers that will expire at the end of June. They have allowed all public school nutrition departments in the country to feed students at no cost.

If no action is taken by federal lawmakers in the next few months, Rowan-Salisbury Schools will have to start charging for meals again, as the reimbursement its nutrition department receives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will no longer cover the cost of every meal.

“Basically we’ll have to go back to what we were doing pre-COVID,” RSS Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann said. “Families, if they need assistance with meals, they’ll have to complete meal applications to get approved for free or reduced meals.”

Meals have been free for any child in Rowan-Salisbury Schools since March of 2020 after Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all schools to close and the federal government quickly stepped in with waivers that gave school nutrition departments unprecedented freedom.

In the early days of the pandemic, the district began delivering meals via school buses along regular routes. Thousands of meals were delivered every day and the waivers were extended more than once.

The district has encouraged families to fill out paperwork for free or reduced meals because it qualifies them for other services and benefits like waived testing fees, but the percentage still dropped from 62-67% of students in RSS to about 55% since the pandemic began. Altmann said that number cannot be accurate and the 67% number is probably a bit lower than reality.

Altmann said she thinks there is a perception universal meals will break the bank, but she said not every child participates and the district has done well with the program.

Altmann has made her position on this issue clear: she was hoping universal free meals would stick around.

“We are very disappointed,” Altmann said. “Because we know children can not learn if they’re hungry. It’s going to put some people in tough situations again. It was just really nice the past two years to not see the division.”

She thought the pandemic would normalize universal free meals and said the school nutrition world was pushing for it.

“The kids really need it,” Altmann said. “It made a huge difference in kids’ lives.”

There are a few good things sticking around. District Nutrition Altmann said the district will be keeping its universal free breakfast program.

There are also 10 schools in Rowan County that qualify for universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. Those schools are Overton, Koontz, Hanford-Dole, Landis, Isenberg, North Rowan and Hurley elementary schools, Knox Middle School, North Rowan Middle School and Henderson Independent School.

Schools are still processing some payments. Altmann said some families are putting money on meal accounts and students can buy extras.

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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