As federal pandemic-era universal school meals program ends, schools adapt to students – AgriNews

GENOA, Illinois – As a federal program enacted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide free school lunches to all comes to an end, school districts in DeKalb County are gearing up for the 2022-2023 school year with their own plans.

The national program has allowed public schools to universally provide a free lunch to all of its students, intended to help ease the financial burdens on families in the wake of the pandemic. For the first time since 2020, most schools across the country will again require students living above the poverty line to pay for their lunches.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, students who attend a school using the National School Lunch Program are still eligible to receive a free lunch if their household income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. Students with a household income between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for a discounted lunch.

For Sycamore Community School District 427, lunches during the 2022-23 school year will cost $2.70, breakfasts will cost $1.50, and milk — which is considered extra — will cost 55 cents, have said school officials.

Sycamore schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, but Superintendent Steve Wilder said the district won’t know how many students are eligible for free or subsidized lunches until the school year begins.

“The most recent percentage was around 24%, and I don’t expect that to change significantly,” Wilder said of the number of Sycamore students who should get free lunch. or reduced.

Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program are required to use foods of a certain quality level.

“We participate in national school lunch programs, so meals and snacks must meet their standards,” Wilder said.

For the month of August, Sycamore Elementary School students had 11 different lunch items, ranging from barbecued pork chops to Italian meatball subs, fluffy pancakes and more. Fruits and vegetables of the day are offered with each meal.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and crispy chicken salads are also available daily, whatever the dish of the day.

Arbor Management is responsible for the food supply provided to schools in the Sycamore School District.

Wilder said he thinks it’s hard to say what effect the end of the national program providing universal free lunches will have on the ratio of students buying lunches versus packing lunches, because the district n There are no good numbers every real day.

“The number of lunches varies for different reasons, but I expect we’ll see more students bring lunch this year as a result of the change,” Wilder said.

DeKalb schools will still offer free lunches for all

In DeKalb Community School District 428, plans to shut down the National Free Lunch Program aren’t expected to have much impact, said Mike Chamness, director of food services for the district.

Indeed, a new program should be launched for the 2022-2023 school year: a “Community Eligibility Provision” option for students and families in the district.

“All students will continue to have the option of receiving free breakfast and/or lunch each day,” Chamness said. “Student participation in our lunch and dinner program continues to increase each year. Our food service team provides food samples, engages with students during meals, and sends annual student surveys to gather feedback which we use to continually improve our program.

Chamness said the district continues to see a high number of students using breakfast programs offered by the school, particularly the district breakfast program since an option was introduced for breakfasts. in class.

“I haven’t come across any students having difficulty affording lunch,” Chamness said, adding that he was unaware of situations where affordability may be a barrier for students to eat at home. school.

Along with lunch offerings, DeKalb schools have adopted ways to ensure reduced food waste over time.

“We have sharing tables set up in every school,” Chamness said. “Sharing tables have baskets on which students can flip packaged whole foods that they choose not to eat. These items comply with national and local health and food safety codes. These foods are then made available to other students who may require additional servings. »

Any leftovers in the baskets are collected after each lunch period and donated to area nonprofits, Chamness said.

Cindy Carpenter, director of business and finance for DeKalb District 428, said the district was moving toward adopting a universal breakfast program even before the pandemic, in part because of the growing number of families who would benefit from any way of a free or reduced lunch.

“But being able to move from that to this other program made a lot of sense to us, so we were ready for that, so our parents wouldn’t see an impact,” Carpenter said.

Nearly half, or 58%, of DeKalb District’s 428 families come from low-income backgrounds, Carpenter said.

“So just over half, almost 60%, would have qualified for a free or reduced meal all naturally through the National School Lunch Program/meal program,” Carpenter said. “But now that we’re in this other program, all students would eat for free, regardless of income.”

Funding for the Community Eligibility Program is also channeled through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program at no cost to local taxpayers and at no cost.

“That’s all the money we’re going to get reimbursed by the federal government,” Carpenter said. “Usually it was around $2.75 for a lunch, and I believe $1.50 for a breakfast, so that’s about what it was before (COVID-19).”

In DeKalb schools, some elementary schools do not have on-site kitchens, so meals are prepared elsewhere by the district’s food supplier, Aramark, and then brought to schools daily. As in Sycamore, daily offerings must meet mandatory nutritional guidelines.

Common childhood dishes are often popular, Carpenter said.

“I know kids usually like pizza and chicken nuggets, that sort of thing,” Carpenter said. “Stuff like that, you know, they usually like to eat even at home. And with that comes with a milk be it white milk or chocolate.

Before the pandemic, DeKalb schools served about 4,000 meals a day, Carpenter said.

“Certainly since the meals were free, we’ve really seen an increase in participation where students are getting the meals in the schools,” Carpenter said. “And, in fact, we saw a very large increase in breakfast attendance.”

Ryan H. Bowman