Schools provide free meals to all students


Local students will not have to pay for school meals for months to come.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently extended flexibilities that will grant all kids free breakfasts and lunches as late as Dec. 31 — or until available funding runs out.

Greater Jasper Schools, Southwest Dubois Schools, Southeast Dubois Schools and North Spencer Schools all began offering standard breakfasts and lunches at no cost on Monday. Northeast Dubois Schools will begin offering free meals on Wednesday.

“Just not having to pay lunch money — at least for a few months, anyway — is one less thing for families to have to worry about right now,” said Katie Knies, food service director for Greater Jasper Schools.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program that requires public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions to meet federal meal pattern requirements and offer lunches at a free or reduced price to eligible children.

Through the extended flexibilities, however, the USDA is allowing schools to offer free meals to all students — not just those who meet certain requirements. Menus will remain the same; students are not required to sign up to receive the free meals; and purchasing extra or a la carte items still requires payment.

The effect was felt early in Greater Jasper schools. Ireland Elementary, for example, saw more than double its normal 50 breakfast buyers on Monday, and other district kitchen managers reported an increase in participation, too. Greater Jasper students who paid for lunches or breakfasts between Sept. 1 and Sept. 11 will be reimbursed for those meals with a credit in their lunch accounts, Knies explained.

“I think just the burden, especially in the midst of this pandemic, the burden of paying for school meals has been lifted,” she said. “Lots of families applied for free and reduced — I also saw a pretty significant increase in applications this year, which was to be expected considering the circumstances — but just because a family applies doesn’t mean that they qualify.”

Their burden has been lifted. In a press release dated Aug. 31, the USDA wrote that the “unprecedented move will help ensure — no matter what the situation is on-the-ground — children have access to nutritious food as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“As our nation reopens and people return to work, it remains critical our children continue to receive safe, healthy and nutritious food,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “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.”

At Greater Jasper Schools, lunches cost $2.25 for grades 6-12 and $2 for kindergarten through fifth-graders. Breakfast costs $1.50 for students in grades 6-12 and $1.25 for those in K-5.

Dan Scherry, superintendent of North Spencer Schools, said that rural Southwest Indiana Hoosiers are hard-working and proud. Sometimes, he said, that means those who need help — whether a lot or a little — are not good at asking for it.

“The point being, it’s going to help,” Scherry said of the money saved through the free meals. “Because I think there are those individuals in our community that have never had to worry about things like free and reduced lunch before. But with some of the COVID-related downturns in the economy, they probably could use a little help. So, I think it’ll be positive.”

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