USDA extends free summer meal program through end of 2020

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

From left, James Wirth, a Whitfield County Schools bus driver, Fatima Aburrayyan and Sherrie Lovain, employees of the nutrition services department, pack food onto a bus outside Dug Gap Elementary School in early June for the summer meals program. The United States Department of Agriculture has approved another extension of the free summer meal program offered by schools through the end of 2020. 

The United States Department of Agriculture has approved another extension of the free summer meal program offered by schools.

The extension runs through Dec. 31 and allows all students 18 and under to have free breakfast and lunch at school.

Wimberly Brackett, Dalton Public Schools director of school nutrition, said the extension "will definitely help us reach more students and families who need meals."

"It also helps ease the logistical burden the school staff is having to face now that meals are (being) eaten in classrooms" as a safety precaution during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Brackett said. "I hope that during this challenging time it can take a little less worry and stress off of school staff and families knowing they won’t have to deal with school breakfast and lunch payments for the next few months."

The nutrition department is bringing meals to classrooms, rather than students congregating in cafeterias this year, and had been utilizing paper-and-pen for accounting, instead of all students touching point-of-sale machines, which can lead to cross-contamination, she said. The food is prepackaged, and meal choices are more limited than usual.

Currently, six Dalton Public Schools — Blue Ridge School, City Park School, Dalton Middle School, Morris Innovative High School, Park Creek School and Roan School — are 100% free for all, but this latest extension will also allow Brookwood School, Dalton High School and Westwood School to have free meals, according to Dalton Public Schools. Families who have paid for lunches during the first part of this school year at those three schools will have their accounts credited for those purchases.

The system allowed families to opt for virtual learning due to the pandemic, and those students can still receive their meals by going to their schools, Brackett explained last month.

"We want to make it as easy as possible," she said.

It remains important, however, for families to continue to fill out the online free-and-reduced form, as there are additional benefits to qualifying for free-and-reduced meals, such as lower monthly Comcast bills, eligibility for GateKey/Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen (REACH) needs-based scholarship programs, lower or no-cost ACT/SAT college admissions and further funding opportunities for the school system, according to Dalton Public Schools. The application can be completed at www.daltonpublicschools.com/departments/school-nutrition/menu-prices.

Those in Whitfield County Schools can apply at www.lunchapplication.com. Whitfield County Schools began serving free meals to all students Sept. 8, thanks to the USDA extension.

"This helps those kids (who) struggle to pay for student meals because they may be on the line for qualifying for free and reduced (meals), and this will help with the (serving) of our kids, (because) it speeds up the process since we do not have to use a point of sale service to account for the meals," said Angie Brown, director of school nutrition for Whitfield County Schools. "We are currently utilizing grab-and-go carts for breakfast and lunch, and this helps tremendously (because we don't have) to use rosters or the computers."

"We use a clicker to account for meals served," Brown said. "This assists us in making sure when the students are there; we are not cutting into their instructional time."

"We have already seen some schools with an increase in breakfasts" served, and that "is a very important meal," Brown added. "It helps our students focus and be ready to learn."

The system will credit meal accounts of students back to Sept. 1, she said. "It is not an easy process, but it will get done, (and) we anticipate all accounts will be credited by the end of the month."

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