The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an extension of a federal summer meal program, meaning all students ages 18 and under in both Hall County and Gainesville City school systems are now eligible for free breakfast and lunch on school days through the end of 2020.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service announced on Aug. 31 that waivers for programs originally designed to feed school-age children during the summer months when school meals are typically unavailable have been extended through the end of the year, allowing for children around the country to have access to meals “under all circumstances,” according to a USDA press release.
Meals will be provided both for in-person students and those learning remotely.
“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy and nutritious food,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a statement.
The release goes on to say that funding may not last all the way through the end of the semester, and that the plan is to continue providing meals “until available funding runs out,” adding that the USDA believes funding will be sufficient to make it through December.
According to Cheryl Jones, Hall County director of school nutrition, the decision allows for all students at Hall County schools to receive breakfast and lunch at school cafeterias free of charge. Prior to this change, she said that around 56% of Hall County students qualified for free or reduced-price meals during the 2019-2020 school year. Families with income at 1.3 and 1.85 times the federal poverty guidelines qualified for free and reduced-price meals, respectively. For a family of four, that would mean a total family income of $34,060 or less to qualify for free meals, or $48,470 or less to qualify for reduced-price meals.
Jones said Hall County is using the Seamless Summer Option program, whereby students are given food without any payment necessary, and the district then submits a claim directly to the Georgia Department of Education for reimbursement. Remote students are also eligible to receive free meals, and their parents can sign up to pick their food up on the Hall County food services website.
Jones also said funding for the program is provided on a participation basis, meaning school districts are not given a specific amount of money for meals, but rather are paid back for the meals they distribute – ranging from $1.10 to $2.05 per meal – until federal funds for the program run dry. The USDA did not return requests for comment about the overall funding for the program.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said the USDA’s decision will streamline the process of getting food to the children and families who need it most.
“It allows us to quit trying to fill out all this really cumbersome paperwork when somebody just needs a lunch,” he said. “It also allows us, with the different models we’re using, just to put a lunch in any family or child’s lap that says they need one.”
Prior to this decision, each student qualifying for free or reduced-price meals would have to apply individually to receive those meals.
The Gainesville City School System will not be affected by the change, as Gainesville City students already receive free meals through Provision 2 of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, according to Superintendent Jeremy Williams. This provision allows schools to provide free meals for all students without individual students having to apply for free and reduced-price meals.