(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, families can at least breathe a small sigh of relief.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided on August 31st to extend its summer meal programs through December 31st or until funding runs out.
“It allows us to feed any student in the St. Joseph School District of the schools that qualify for free. Breakfast and Lunch,” said Brian Tarr, St. Joseph School District's Coordinator of Nutrition Services.
The USDA extended program provides free breakfast and lunch to all students as the coronavirus crisis has put a financial strain on families.
“It helps a lot. It allows us to feed them without having to collect payments. Some of the families that were borderline, now get free meals without having to worry about it. We have seen an increase in numbers of students eating, we’d like to feed more,” said Tarr.
Tarr said for a school in the SJSD to qualify for the free meal extension, covering all students' meals regardless of financial requirements, 51% of the school needs to be on free or reduced lunch.
SJSD's nutrition officials said 17 schools in the district fall within that range.
Students in the SJSD enrolled in the Virtual Academy also can receive free breakfast and lunch, but Tarr said not many families are taking up the offer.
“We’ve actually seen a lot of virtual students not come in to get meals. We would like to see more come in. We’re doing around 250 student meals that are picked up. Before the extension, we were doing about 120-130,” said Tarr.
The USDA waivers have helped other area schools provide students with free meals.
When the pandemic hit, Mid-Buchanan School District saw a significant increase in need.
“I think our first delivery day we had maybe 25 or 26 students and then within two weeks, it climbed to over 190. We were glad to help and support those who needed it, but I honestly didn’t realize it would climb that high,” said Jay Albright, Mid-Buchanan Superintendent.
SJSD nutrition services said the pandemic has given them a heavy workload.
“It’s actually a lot of work for our ladies in the kitchen. Not only are they feeding the students in the buildings, but preparing meals to go or passing out meals to go. It is a lot of work for them,” said Tarr.
But, SJSD still hopes to feed as many kids as possible through this free meal extension.
“We would obviously like to see more,” said Tarr.
Tarr said six schools in the SJSD don't qualify for the free meals because they have low percentages of students on free or reduced lunch: Central High School, Bode Middle School, Bessie Ellison Elementary School, Eugene Field Elementary School and Oak Grove Elementary.