Aside from congressional action over the next six weeks, school districts across northeastern Oklahoma are preparing for changes to their children’s nutrition programs, as several exemptions are set to expire on June 30.
In response to the pandemic, the federal government approved a series of exemptions in 2020 to allow school districts and summer meals to serve students safely. These exemptions were re-authorized for the school year 2021-22, but an attempt to extend them in March was blocked in Congress.
Along with free meals for each child, the dispensations allowed sites to send home for several days of meals and snacks at once instead of a single lunch or breakfast that was to be served for a specific period of time and eaten on site.
For example, Tulsa Public Schools has offered one week of meals at a time to students attending Tulsa Virtual Academy. TVA families have been able to pick up these meals outside the former Grimes Elementary School on Mondays during the 2021-22 school year. The district offered a similar option to all families prior to extended breaks during the school year, such as the spring break. If for some reason the student could not be with the parent, the parent could pick up food for the child by presenting some form of identification, such as the child’s report card or birth certificate.
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After June 30, however, none of that will be an option.
TPS will launch its summer café option on June 1st. During that month, grab-and-go places and mobile meal places will be available from 6 p.m. 11:00 to 13:00 throughout the city, where students will be able to pick up both a lunch and a breakfast.
In July and August, however, students must eat their meals where they are served, whether it is at a mobile meal place or their summer school place.
Across the country, the number of summer meals served increased by more than 18 million from 2020 to 2021, an increase that Tulsa-based Hunger Free Oklahoma officials partially attributed to the exemptions that provided more flexibility for both parents and site hosts.
“The dropouts were designed to respond to COVID-19, and it’s this mindset of behaving like ‘COVID-19 is over so we’re not dealing with it,'” said Hunger Free Oklahoma CEO Chris Barnard. “Whatever your opinion on the public health side of it, the effects are not over.”
When school starts in August, in order to continue receiving free school meals, students must either complete an income-based free or reduced-price school meal application or attend a school that practices the National School Lunch Programs Community Eligibility Provision, such as all TPS elementary sites.
Steve Dyer, director of TPS ‘Child Nutrition Program, said his department was not happy that the exemptions were ending, but would increase communication efforts to ensure parents are aware of the changes to minimize the chances of a child not having access to a meal.
“We are quite sad that the exemptions are disappearing,” he said. “We love serving children, and that makes it so much easier when you do not have to make applications.
“If we can feed a child for free, it’s a huge ease to know that no student cares about whether they have the means to have a meal.”
The exemptions also gave school districts a higher reimbursement rate to help cover the increased costs of the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment and risk payment for child nutrition workers, delivery costs for mobile meal programs and packaging costs for individually wrapped grab-and-go meals.
Nationwide, 90% of school districts used this special exemption and received higher reimbursement rates.
Normally, school districts are refunded per. meal with one rate during the school year and another, higher rate for summer meal. During the 2021-22 school year, school districts received $ 4.56 for each free lunch or discount served and $ 2.60 for each free or discounted breakfast served.
In comparison, districts received $ 3.43 for each free lunch or reduced price and $ 2.19 for each free or reduced price breakfast during the school year prior to the pandemic.
However, if the waiver expires on June 30, the districts will again be reimbursed at a lower rate when school starts in August.
Since all students eat for free, Union Public Schools has served an additional 300,000 lunches this school year and it counts.
For the head of the district’s child nutrition program, Lisa Griffin, this adjustment of the reimbursement rate will mean an expected budget hit of around 25% for the school year 2022-23, while dealing with staff shortages, double-digit percentage increases in food costs and, in some cases, only one company , who are willing to supply certain necessary goods, such as milk or bread products.
“One of the bread companies we have worked with in the past said that it is now too expensive to transport their goods to us, so we are left with one provider to work with,” she said. “We are at the mercy of theirs when it comes to prices.
The new reimbursement rate has not yet been set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so the Union has not yet been able to set meal prices for students and staff. Meanwhile, Griffin has tried to acquire and store additional frozen items, such as chicken and turkey, for future meals before prices rise even higher.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education, which oversees child nutrition programs nationwide, has applied for exemptions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow grab-and-go meals to continue, and for parents to be able to pick up meals without their children to present.
However, this waiver request is still pending, and if granted, these flexibilities will only be allowed if COVID-19 has forced students to switch to distance learning. They would not apply if a district or school moves to distance learning for other reasons, such as bad weather.
Like her counterpart at TPS, Griffin is not happy about the prospect of waivers, while her department continues to deal with the ripple effects of the pandemic.
“Everyone knows that good nutrition helps children learn and become functioning adults,” Griffin said. “There is so much research that shows that you can not do anything better than that.
“To take that funding away … it really feels like we need to put our money into our future and into our children so that they have the opportunity to learn. They have already had educational setbacks due to COVID- 19. We do not have to do that with nutrition either. ”