School board continues discussion on school meals, waivers

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, August 23, 2022

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Schools got an update on the state of school meals Monday night.

The board asked to be briefed on meal payments because of local interest in the issue after an impactful federal waiver expired at the end of June. The waiver was extended several times and carried the district’s free universal meals program from March 2020 through June of 2022.

Now that the waiver is gone, the district’s nutrition service has to charge for meals again because it is not reimbursed for all meals by the United States Department of Agriculture. Public school nutrition services are organized as enterprises that have to break even, and meal debt was racking up quickly in the first week of school.

The district will not deny a meal to a student who is unable to pay, but will initially allow a student to accrue a debt for the value of three lunches before beginning to enter “alternate meals” into its system, which it does not get reimbursed for. Those “uncollected student debts” are part of what people can donate toward as sometimes families cannot afford to pay for even three meals. School Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann made a point of telling the board the department’s goal is to break even and the funding it receives is all based on sales and USDA reimbursement.

There is a long list of scenarios that still make meals free for many students. Breakfast is free in every school, 10 schools qualify for a community waiver that lets the district serve everyone for free, and many students qualify for free or reduced cost lunch.

Altmann said applications have been flowing in for free and reduced status. Enrollment dropped to about 50% during the pandemic because free meals were universal. Altmann said enrollment has picked back up and is now at 61%. She told the board the district sat at 67% enrollment in the free or reduced cost program prior to universal free meals.

The state has also set aside money to cover the difference between the free and reduced lunch costs, so students who qualify for reduced lunch do not have to pay.

Altmann said qualifying for a community waivers that provide universal free meals at the individual school is based on a mix of factors including the number of families who receive food stamps, medicaid, those in foster care.

Board Chair Dean Hunter asked Altmann if more schools could be added to the list of community waivers. She said those changes are considered in the spring and pointed out it can go both ways.

“Unfortunately, you might remember, a couple years ago we lost two,” Altmann said.

She said the district lost waivers at Knollwood Elementary and China Grove Elementary and she hopes the schools will qualify for waivers again this spring. The district does maintain accounts at each school to help kids pay for meals and the public can contribute to those accounts, as noted, to offset that uncollected debt.

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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