All students in the Perry schools will enjoy free breakfasts and lunches through the end of the year because the district is participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plan for extending the summer program of free meals.
Perry Community School District Nutrition Director Meladee Steele explained to the Perry School Board Monday how the free meals came about. Steele said a federal waiver from the USDA that allowed the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic was set to expire Aug. 31, but the USDA extended the program through Dec. 31 or until the funding is exhausted.
The free-lunch flexibilities were granted under the SFSP, a federally-funded, state-administered program that provides reimbursements from the USDA for any free meal served to a child age 18 and under.
“This is really kind of a win for the community, for us, the whole way around,” Steele said. “Really nothing changes in the school. We can still do the same meals we’re doing right now. They will just be free now for all of them as opposed to having to pay for those. Same thing with breakfast and lunch.”
Perry School Board President Kyle Baxter recommended that the district not participate in the program because it encourages entitlement dependency and an over-reliance on the government.
“It’s not really free,” Baxter said. “We all pay for it. I said at one point in time that if we ever went to 100% free lunch for everybody, my kids would not take it. I think there’s a lot of kids out there that wouldn’t. In my opinion, you’re teaching the kids to take a handout.”
Steele said many school nutrition administrators and child nutrition advocates welcome the USDA funds. She said participating will bring in “thousands of dollars a month” to the PCSD Nutrition Department, and rejecting the federal funding would set the PCSD apart.
“If we don’t do it, we’re probably the only district that’s not going to be implementing it,” Steele said. She said the cost-free meals might also encourage more participation by the 225 students engaged in online learning, including about 100 students in the Perry Elementary School.
“It very well could increase their participation,” said Steele. “Right now we have maybe 10 of the remote learners actually coming in for a meal, and that could increase.” She said she was uncertain why so few online students are coming in for breakfast and lunch.
PCSD Superintendent Clark Wicks compared the USDA funding for free meals to the COVID-19 response and recovery funds that many people and businesses are using, such as farmers, restaurants and other small businesses.
“I think this is maybe a way for the schools to get some help,” Wicks said. “Philosophically, I understand that, and I agree with the idea of having free handouts. We’ve got to be careful with that. But I think a lot of people that have been in a pinch, even here in Perry, are getting some kind of help. If we had that help every year, we obviously couldn’t run as a whole United States or Perry or Iowa, but I think in the short term it will help our nutrition department and if kids choose not to, that’s fine, too. But I don’t think it’s that much different from what has been going on in a whole lot of other areas.”
The USDA’s waivers will:
- Allow free meals to be served in all areas and at no cost
- Permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times
- Waive meal pattern requirements as necessary
- Allow parents and guardians to pick-up meals for their children
According to the Iowa Department of Education, schools that participated in the National School Lunch Program last school year and experienced economic impacts of COVID-19 may choose to participate in the extended Summer Food Service Program.
The current SFSP reimbursement rates are valid Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020. The rate for breakfast is $2.3750, for lunch/supper is $4.1525 and for snack is $0.9775. These are the reimbursement rates for self-preparation sponsors and vended sponsors in rural areas. Reimbursement rates are slightly lower for vended sponsors or sponsors with FSMCs in urban areas.