Alabama students who opted for remote learning will still be able to get meals from their schools. Several school districts are going the extra mile to not only make them available, but also to deliver meals to students.
Pickens County superintendent Jamie Chapman said his district is moving forward with a pilot program, delivering meals to remote learning students via bus routes in communities where the need is high.
When schools closed last March, schools there made meals available, but they had to be picked up from the school.
“We’ve got a lot of kids in rural Pickens County that struggled to get to the meal pick-up sites in the spring,” Chapman said. Community partners and volunteers helped deliver meals to students, but Chapman wanted to try to find a way for the schools to get meals directly to the district’s most vulnerable students.
More than 75% of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Chapman said.
A fair number of students there will be doing remote learning, whether they chose all virtual or traditional, where students will be in school two days a week for now.
The rules for how schools handle school meals for remote learning students in the new school year are different from the rules in place last spring when school buildings were officially closed for students.
School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth said a waiver issued by the USDA last spring made delivering meals to students through community centers and bus routes easier because school staff could serve meals to any and all children 18-and-under without verifying enrollment or income status.
That waiver expires either the first day of school or Aug. 31, whichever comes first.
Hollingsworth said education officials at the state and national level are pushing for the USDA to extend the waiver.
Without that waiver, schools now have to ensure the child is enrolled and verify their meal eligibility status. Students will be expected to pay full price for meals unless they qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Verification and exchanging payment can be difficult tasks to complete on a school bus route.
Chapman knows it’s going to be more complicated and require more effort for school officials to deliver meals to students through bus routes without the waiver.
“We’re very hopeful and prayerful that we’ll get a waiver again,” Chapman said. “If we got a waiver, we could feed them all, and we could be very successful in this.”
Having access to meals at school is “extremely important,” Hollingsworth said. “For lots of our children, the only solid meals they have are breakfast and lunch, and they’re getting those at school.”
“If a child is not healthy, if they’re hungry, obviously they’re not going to do well (at school). They’re not worried about reading and math,” he added.
Pickens County schools posted notice on social media that buses will deliver meals on Aug. 28. If students are able to make it to the school, meals can be picked up at each school from 10 a.m. until 12 noon, beginning Aug. 21.
Jefferson County schools, which start with remote learning only on Sept. 8, are also planning to run school bus routes to deliver meals according to information posted to their website. Details of where and when buses will run haven’t been released.
Eufaula City Schools published a list of bus routes where school meals will be available when school starts Aug. 24. All students in the city district are eligible for free meals, but students still will need to be identified as enrolled in the district.
Other school districts will offer curbside pickup for remote learning students, but that still means students have to find a way to get to the school to pick up their meals.
When school buildings closed during the spring and the summer, officials used various methods to get food to schoolchildren.
USDA waivers made the process easier, officials said, allowing meals to be served to all children 18-and-under and also to be distributed in bulk packaging like gallons of milk rather than individual servings.
Some districts distributed food on a weekly basis, allowing families to pick up a week’s worth of meals, while other schools offered pickups multiple days of the week.
Students in as many as 31 Alabama school districts, most of them in rural areas, participated in the Baylor University Meals to You program which delivered meals to students’ homes through the mail or other package carrier. That program ended on Aug. 15.
The Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, program in May provided federal benefits, more than $300 per child, to eligible families to cover the cost of meals that students missed because of spring school closures.
The Alabama Department of Human Resources, which administered the P-EBT program, told AL.com the department distributed nearly $131.4 million in federal food assistance to more than 455,000 children in nearly 350,000 households from May to July.
Acknowledging that the additional verification procedures probably mean that everything won’t go perfectly, Chapman said, “We’re certainly going to try.”
“We’re trying to get the word out,” Chapman said. “We’re gonna try as best we can to serve our kids, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll have to go to Plan B. And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what Plan B is right now.”