USDA decision means millions of dollars for local schools

A five-day meal box that Pulaski County Special School District distributed earlier this year to students. The free school meals program has been extended until June 30, 2022, the USDA announced on Tuesday.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced on Tuesday that its revised school meal program would be extended to June 30, 2022 to cover the next school year as well.

That decision will have an immediate impact on local schools to the tune of millions of dollars in extra and extended cash benefits for districts with free breakfast and lunch for students.

The decision “to provide safe, healthy meals free of charge to children” was made by President Joe Biden’s administration and it was announced by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a press release.

In the simplest of terms, all students will continue to receive a free school breakfast and lunch every day if they choose at no cost to the district. The amount each district receives per meal will continue to be reimbursed at a higher rate to account for packaging due to the ongoing pandemic and, for some districts, delivery or pickup for students taking virtual classes.

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Through March 30 of this year, 788,000 meals have been served to students in the Pulaski County Special School District, spokeswoman Jessica Duff said in an email and that cost, $5,459,900, was covered by the school meals program. 

It would mean that the district, Duff said, could continue feeding “11,803 students per day” next year and entirely at no cost to PCSSD.

“We look forward to providing all students with a free breakfast and lunch next school term,” Duff said. “We hope more families will benefit from this opportunity.”

Duff had previously said that when some schools had pivoted to virtual classes, those schools offered boxed meals for pickup and that not all students participated.

Those curbside pickups were not previously allowed but are now and will continue to be for next year.

“States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall,” Vilsack said. “USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. …  It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”

The program will also allow districts like PCSSD to further customize how they handle meal service based on the needs of the individual school.

It isn’t just schools as child and adult care facilities are also included and the program will continue to cover breakfast, lunch and snacks in “flexible meal times.”

The program still needs to stick to nutrition standards and meals must provide, “fruits and vegetables, fluid milk and whole grains” at what the USDA called, “sensible calorie levels” depending on age.

The USDA noted that nationally there’s approximately 12 million children who are considered food insecure and “may not always have enough to eat during the pandemic.”

In addition, the USDA has extended SNAP allotments for an additional $1 billion a month for 25 million Americans, and President Biden’s recently passed American Rescue Plan Act “provides over $12 billion in new nutrition assistance to address hardship caused by the pandemic.”