Schools work on getting free meals to all students during pandemic

As food insecurity grows, K-12 officials are working to ensure every student is fed and the state can benefit from a federal decision that essentially will fund free meals for all students, not just those who traditionally receive free and reduced lunch.

“We’re helping them (schools) do that,” said Cheryl Johnson, director of the Child Nutrition and Wellness team at the Kansas State Department of Education. “The schools are being receptive,” Johnson said.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would extend through the end of the calendar year, or until funds remain available from Congress, certain flexibilities in rules it had granted during the last school year to provide free meals when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, was one of 20 senators who urged USDA to take the action.

“I applaud USDA’s work with state agencies, schools, and non-school sponsoring organizations to collaboratively provide meals through the Department’s child nutrition programs when schools were unexpectedly closed in the spring, through the summer, and now again as schools wrestle with these challenges as the school year begins,” Roberts said.

In Kansas, that means schools that apply for the necessary federal waivers can provide meals to all students for free and then receive federal reimbursements. Many are doing that now as they also juggle innumerable tasks to reopen schools.

“It is a lot of work to retroactively refund money into accounts,” said Johnson. “Even with lots of flexibility from USDA, there are still things you have to do to get federal funds and track them,” she said. “Even so, we anticipate a high percentage of Kansas school districts will take advantage of this opportunity because it benefits Kansas families,” she said.

She said Kansas schools continue to do a phenomenal job in providing meals during the pandemic whether students have been in school or learning remotely. After buildings were closed, districts statewide switched from cafeteria meal service to grab-and-go and home-deliveries. Many worked with community partners, such as businesses and churches and some districts increased their focus on growing their own food.

Officials have said it is crucial to provide the free meals because studies have shown that because of the pandemic and economic downturn, food insecurity increased significantly.

Feeding America estimates that Kansas will see a 47.6 percent increase in child food insecurity statewide due to the novel coronavirus.

From mid-March, when schools were closed, through July, 18.4 million meals were reimbursed through the meals program in Kansas. In 2019, 1.4 million meals were reimbursed from May through August.

Recently, eight Kansas school districts, three organizations and a group of leaders were honored by the State Board of Education for outstanding practices in child nutrition programs.

Those honored were: Wamego USD 320; Haven USD 312; Elk Valley USD 283; Topeka USD 501; McPherson USD 418; Maize USD 266; Southern Lyons USD 252; Liberal USD 480; First Choice Support Services Inc.; Quality Care Services Inc; St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church and the Navigating Change 2020 Food Service Operations Committee, whose members were Jessica Younker, chair, Hays USD 489; Nancy Coughenour, Shawnee Mission USD 512; Connie Kimzey, Cherokee USD 247; Lori Campbell, Silver Lake USD 372; Tracy Moerer, Burlington USD 244 and Megan Barnard, Maize USD 266.

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