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Summer lunch programs returning to normal

by Janelle Jessen | May 30, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
Kassidy Meadows, 8, receives a chicken sandwich with glazed carrots Monday, June 4, 2018, from Sheri Clayton, manager of the Fayetteville Public Schools Child Nutrition Mobile Food Trailer, in front of the Fayetteville Public Library. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK )

Area school districts will be serving thousands of meals a day to ensure children have nutritious food during the summer break without the pandemic-related restrictions of the past two years.

Schools offer free meals during the summer break to anyone age 18 and younger through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Seamless Summer Option. Students aren't required to attend school in the district, so younger siblings or children visiting their grandparents for the summer can participate as well, officials said.

During the past two years, districts used strategies such as curbside pickup to continue offering meals. This year, schools can allow kids to eat on site.

Covid-related waivers are expiring, which will create some changes in several districts.

In 2020 and 2021, Fayetteville couldn't do a traditional meal program throughout the week, said Amy Jefferson, child nutrition director. Instead, cafeteria staff packed five breakfasts and lunches that parents could pick up once a week. This year, lunches will be served daily, and students will be able to eat on site again.

The Fayetteville School District expects to feed about 450 to 500 students a day, Jefferson said. Lunches are served at Ramay Junior High and the district also runs a food truck that makes stops at the Fayetteville Public Library and the Yvonne Richardson Center on Monday through Friday, she said.

Free summer lunches for all children allow students to have a meal and gives them an outing, Jefferson said. Thirty-eight percent of students in the district qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, Jefferson said. The number is used to measure the poverty level in a district.

A federal waiver under the Seamless Summer Option allowed districts to offer free meals to all students, regardless of whether they qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, during the school year for the past two years. It is set to expire June 30.

When the waiver expires, a family of four will have to earn less than $51,338 to qualify for reduced-price lunches and $36,075 to qualify for free lunches during the school year, according to USDA guidelines.

Summer meals will continue to be free for everyone under age 18.

The Springdale School District offered curbside pickup the past two years, according to Gena Smith, childhood nutrition director. This year, students will be able to eat breakfast and lunch on site again at 10 elementary schools, she said.

The district, which has a 70% free and reduced-price lunch rate, anticipates serving 2,600 to 3,000 meals a day, Smith said.

"These are students who depend on us for breakfast and lunch," she said. "Even though they are not in the classroom, they are still developing, and we want them to make sure they still have access to healthy meals so they can grow strong."

The Rogers School District offered curbside pickup in 2020, but got back out into the community last year, said Kellie Simpson, assistant director of child nutrition.

This year, the district will offer a drive-up site at New Technology High School and will deliver meals to six community sites located at apartment complexes, she said. Parents will be required to accompany their children to pickup sites this year, unless the child is attending as part of a summer school or sports program, because a covid-related waiver is expiring, she said.

Sixty percent of students in the districts receive free or reduced-price lunches, and Simpson anticipates serving about 1,000 meals a day.

Rogers' mobile program brings meals to students because many families who are food insecure only have one vehicle and kids don't have transportation, Simpson said.

"We found we are meeting a need in some of the lower-income areas of town," she said.

The school makes sure students have hot meals, fresh fruits and veggies and cold milk Monday through Friday at all seven sites, Simpson said.

Bentonville School District received a waiver that allowed it to open more mobile meal sites in 2020 and 2021, according to Janet Schwanhausser, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer. That waiver expired, which will limit the number of sites, she said.

Bentonville will serve breakfast and lunch at Bentonville High School and Jones Elementary, as well as lunch at three mobile sites.

While Bentonville has a 25% free and reduced-price lunch rate -- the lowest of the four largest districts in the region -- it doesn't make the students who struggle with food insecurity any less hungry, Schwanhausser said.

Not having to worry about where their next meal will come from means children can focus on spending their summers being kids -- playing outside, reading and doing fun activities, she said.

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