With the return of elementary school students to in-person school, Columbia Public Schools (CPS) sent out an update regarding the free meals provided to all students through an email on Oct. 20. CPS extended the program, which had previously been in effect until Dec. 31, to last through the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, CPS has provided free breakfast and lunch to all students ages 2-18 through the Grab-and-Go Meal Service since March 30. This service delivers food to approximately 80 stops across high-need areas in Columbia.
With the introduction of virtual learning in September, the Grab-and-Go Meal Service and meal pick-ups at Hickman High School have remained available for all students regardless of if they qualified for free and reduced-cost meals.
Extensions to waivers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have allowed CPS to continue programs to assist schools and families. These waivers gave grants to school districts across the nation to provide free breakfast and lunch for students, even while they were not physically at school.
There are more families than ever now that are struggling with supporting themselves and their children, so it is very beneficial that CPS can now take away another stressor that families are having [to deal with] during this pandemic.”
CPS Nutrition Services Director Laina Fullum said all schools in the district qualified for these extended waivers because Columbia’s unemployment rate doubled in the past four to five months.
“One was called the Seamless Summer Waiver, and originally only schools who had an enrollment of 50% or more free and reduced-price students qualified,” Fullum said. “But, they also allow Census data and for the first time, to my knowledge, unemployment rates. So, I applied for all schools using our unemployment rate, and [the USDA] approved all schools for the waiver until June 30th [of next year].”
The rise in unemployment has led to an increase in food insecurity within the district, and sophomore Lydia Schrimpf said she thinks the free meals are vital to supporting families.
“There are more families than ever now that are struggling with supporting themselves and their children,” Schrimpf said. “So it is very beneficial that CPS can now take away another stressor that families are having [to deal with] during this pandemic.”
Parents of students going to school in-person don’t have to put money in their child’s lunch accounts anymore. Schrimpf, who has younger siblings in elementary school, said even though her parents do not qualify for the Free and Reduced-Cost Lunch program, her siblings are utilizing this resource because of the convenience and availability of these free meals.
Junior Evelyn Wilbur said the switch to virtual learning is overwhelming in several ways. She said families are navigating through changes they never had to think about before, like making three meals a day at home.
One of the unintended consequences of online school is that students aren’t making time to eat lunch or don’t know what to eat. They end up just eating unsubstantial snacks, so it’s good that [CPS is] addressing this issue.”
“More families are in difficult financial systems due to the shrinking demand of workers, but also, preparing food takes time,” Wilbur said. “That’s not something everyone had to do when people were getting lunch at school.”
For students who are making their meals, Wilbur said she thinks the lack of structure from virtual learning has made it harder to plan when to eat. She thinks this program is essential in ensuring that students get the nutrition they need throughout the day.
“One of the unintended consequences of online school is that students aren’t making time to eat lunch or don’t know what to eat,” Wilbur said. “They end up just eating unsubstantial snacks, so it’s good that [CPS is] addressing this issue.”
Although there are several benefits these services provide, Schrimpf sees barriers for students who are still virtual to utilize the program. She said transportation might be a limitation for those living farther away from the designated meal pick-up spots.
“I think it’s difficult for people that have parents that work during the day and can’t get out to get their lunches,” Schrimpf said. “Everyone has a different home life, and not everyone’s parents are available enough to accommodate [getting to a bus stop or school].”
Fullum said most of the participants have been in elementary school, and there has been a decline in participation on days other than Wednesday. However, she said she believes numbers will go up with news about these resources being sent out to parents again.
Will you be utilizing the free meal program? Let us know in the comments below.