School lunches

Food service worker Lori Goldberg (front) adds grapes to a bag with lunch and breakfast as Milane Mendoza scans a student’s ID paper to pay for the meal just before noon Aug. 27 at Central School.

It turns out there are free lunches, at least for children between 2 and 18 years old, now that the Department of Agriculture has announced an extension of its summer meal program through Dec. 31.

Monday’s announcement means schools across the United States can give out lunch and breakfast food at no charge during the COVID-19 pandemic as long as the funding provided by Congress lasts.

Tracy Unified School District’s director of food services, Brandy Campbell, said Wednesday that the free meals were already being served at all district schools except Stein High School, and there had been a dramatic increase in how many families were picking up lunches.

“We had previously looked at numbers, and at some sites it was really low, and we thought, oh goodness, can we even keep this site open? But now, since Monday, with the announcement of free meals for all children from the ages of 2 to 18, we’ve already doubled how many we were serving daily last week,” Campbell said. “I’m not seeing a reason to pull back any services because we’ve increased.”

The USDA issued a waiver that allows the no-cost meal program known as Seamless Summer to continue into the fall, permits schools to serve meals outside of the typical group settings and meal times, and allows adults to pick up meals on their children’s behalf.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue explained it as a way to ensure children would have access to nutritious food.

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy, and nutritious food,” Perdue said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA has provided an unprecedented amount of flexibilities to help schools feed kids through the school meal programs, and today, we are also extending summer meal program flexibilities for as long as we can, legally and financially.”

The summertime rules allow schools to give a meal to any child, even one who is not enrolled in the district.

Normally, free summer meals are served at schools where a high percentage of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, but the waiver from the USDA allows them to be distributed from any campus.

The change to free meals for all students in response to Monday’s announcement has already attracted more families.

“It literally doubled. Last week, our average daily participation hovered around 711 meals, and just yesterday, we served over 1,500 meals, which is great because we’re able to feed more kiddos,” Campbell said. “It’s not just TUSD students.”

Meals will continue to be distributed curbside from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at TUSD elementary, middle and high schools. Each bagged meal includes lunch and the next day’s breakfast.

One of the reasons participation had been low for the first few weeks of the quarter was that some parents, especially those working outside the home, found it difficult to get their children to campus at lunchtime to pick up food.

Campbell said parents and children will still have to go to the school together at least once so school employees can verify the number of children receiving meals. After that, the parent can show a preprinted card to get the correct number of meals and take them home to their kids, streamlining the process.

“We’re trying to remove all the barriers of getting meals from us, and we found that was a barrier,” Campbell said.

Banta Elementary School District also began handing out free meals this week at Banta School and at NextGeneration STEAM Academy at River Islands in Lathrop.

Food service supervisor Jamie Anderson said Banta had participated in the free Seamless Summer meal program over the summer. When the paid National School Lunch Program resumed with the start of the school year, participation fell drastically, even though about 70 students at Banta School qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on their families’ income.

But the announcement of free lunches for everyone sparked new interest.

“We went from being essential to almost having to cut all my staff,” Anderson said. “So this last month was really hard, and then today we went from doing 40 lunches last week to having 170 sign up today, but only 140 showed up.”

Instead of serving meals daily, the Banta food service staff provides frozen meals in bulk once a week. Each child receives five breakfasts and lunches.

Families aren’t required to sign up, but Anderson said she asked for sign-ups so she would know how many meals to prepare.

“All summer long, we were just guessing,” she said.

Parents can pick up meals curbside at Banta School or the STEAM Academy either between noon and 1 p.m. Tuesday or between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. Thursday. The Thursday afternoon pickup was added so parents wouldn’t have to interrupt their children’s distance learning sessions.

“We really know there is a need,” Anderson said. “We want to try and reach more families, and we’ve tried robocalls, we’ve tried Facebook, we tried emails, we sent letters home. I just don’t know what else to kind of do to reach families. We want to help these kids.”

Jefferson School District has been offering curbside meals since the school year began, and Dena Whittington, the chief business official, said the district was switching to the free meal program at all four campuses. Meal pickup is between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.

“Hopefully this will be attracting more participation,” Whittington said.

The district didn’t have a Seamless Summer meal program; instead, Jefferson students mostly went to TUSD schools to get lunch. But it did provide free meals while schools were closed between March and May.

Lammersville Unified School District officials did not say whether schools in Mountain House would hand out free meals to children under the USDA waiver.

Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

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