An initiative started this spring when schools closed unexpectedly that made sure all students had regular access to food is being continued through December.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced Sept. 2 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture released several waivers Aug. 31.
Among other things, those national waivers allow districts to serve all children in their communities free meals through the end of the year.
“It was offered to any district,” said Jill Swaney, business manager for Mars Area School District. “We took the opportunity.”
Swaney said after receiving a notification about the program from the Department of Education, she filed the necessary paperwork to help Mars Area opt into the initiative. Butler Area School district also opted into the free meal extension.
The free meal program is an expansion on the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option, both established to reimburse districts that offer free meals and snacks for students in low-income households.
This newest waiver makes all children through age 18 eligible to receive free meals.
This includes those in traditionally high-income households, those not enrolled in the district and those attending school through livestream or cyber channels. Families are able to retrieve meals by stopping by any district building.
“That's how we'll be through December,” Swaney said. “(This is) huge for us.”
Swaney said historically, Mars Area has less than 10% of students enrolled in the district's free or reduced meal program.
But with the unpredictability of 2020, she said the district is making sure to cover every child, regardless of the status of their home life.
“We can't assume that people don't need this,” Swaney said. “We have no way of knowing.”
Brian White, superintendent at Butler Area, said offering free meals allows the district to make sure all children are fed — including the younger siblings of students.
Not having to collect money from students also helps with pandemic precautions, according to White.
“We have been serving lunch in non-traditional spaces,” White said. “It allows us to serve kids faster.”
The senior high school, for instance, is serving students in six or seven locations. Because food service staff don't need to be concerned with collecting meal fees, they can focus on serving students safely.
Districts are continuing to improve meal preparation and distribution. Butler Area, for instance, is in the process of ordering extra heating devices, so hot meals can be served in locations outside of the cafeteria.
Tracy Vitale, superintendent for Seneca Valley School District, said cafeteria staff is particularly important at this time.
“I have always believed that all jobs are important,” Vitale said. “This could not be more true right now.”
Seneca Valley provided more than 200,000 meals to students under the initial pandemic-induced free meal programs from March through June. Vitale is excited to see the meal program grow, particularly when parents face “extra stressors.”
“We are grateful for the federal reimbursement extension to offer free breakfasts and lunches to our entire community,” Vitale said, “even for those students in our full-time cyber program.”
On the menu
At this time, free meal services are expected to end Dec. 31. There is no information regarding the possibility of the USDA continuing the program through the spring.
But even if free meals come to an end, White said the benefits to be gained now are important in the grand scheme of navigating the pandemic.
White said the effects of this initiative are immediate.
“Of all the federal dollars being spent, it's probably one of the most direct benefits,” White said.
“We hope this program helps ease yet another burden on our families,” Vitale said.