On Sept. 3, Rockingham County Public Schools (RCPS) announced it would provide current K-12 students and children under 18 with free meals beginning Thursday, Sept. 10. Students enrolled in high school who are over the age of 18 are still eligible to receive free meals.
This program is an extension of the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), an initiative overseen and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to the USDA website, the SFSP began in 1968 in an effort to ensure that students had access to nutritious food when school wasn’t in session.
“In the spring, through the latter part of March, April, May, June, [and] July, we offered the same Summer Food Service Program that extended free meals to any child less than 18 years old,” Gerald Lehman, director of food and nutrition services for Rockingham County Public Schools, said.
RCPS issued a press release explaining the details of the program.
“On non-holiday weekdays, a free breakfast and lunch is available to any child under the age of 18, whether enrolled in a Rockingham County school or not,” the press release said. “The enrolled in-school students can receive these meals while in school during ‘normal’ meal periods.”
The RCPS press release explained the protocols for meal distribution. Children attending school will receive their meals during the day, and on Tuesday afternoon they can pick up Wednesday’s meals. On Wednesdays, no students attend school in person, providing teachers with an opportunity to focus on planning virtual content and outreach. Parents of children not enrolled in RCPS can pick up meals from 3-6 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. The Monday pickup slot provides meals for three days, and the Thursday slot includes meals for two days.
“It is anticipated that this program would continue through December, 2020 (as funding is available),” the press release said.
The USDA website highlights the national impacts of the program, stating that, “in 2018, the SFSP provided more than 145 million nutritious meals and snacks to children during the summer when school was not in session.”
Usually, the SFSP is offered only in areas where greater than 50% of students qualify for reduced price meals. However, in order to help families impacted by the pandemic regardless of their place of residence, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18, a piece of legislation including a waiver for states to allow SFSP sites in all areas regardless of the percentage of students in need.
When COVID-19 caused sudden school shutdowns, local officials acted swiftly to ensure that children still received meals despite the shift to virtual learning. Lehman said he’s helped coordinate the process and field questions from the public.
Over the course of five months, Lehman said he witnessed the large impacts of the program on the community.
“In the spring, we offered the same food service program that extended free meals to any child less than 18 years old,” Lehman said. “We began with about 1,000 meals a day. That increased to about 1,600 at our maximum, and then by the time we stopped at the end of July, it was down to about 700.”
Tammy May, principal of Lacey Spring Elementary School, has been active with food preparation and said she has a deep passion for the project. She said she believes schools play a part not only in educating children but in helping families in the community.
“Families feel welcome here, at any of the Rockingham County Public Schools, they know the schools are here to care for their needs,” May said.
Meals are prepared by food and nutrition service workers who then distribute them to students at school or parents waiting in the pick up line.
“Our cafeteria workers that prepare the meals are remarkable human beings, they make and serve the meals with love,” May said.
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