The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended waivers for the free meal program, meaning school districts in Bucks County and throughout the nation can continue providing what officials here say is a lifeline to students and families.
The waiver is now extended through June 30, 2022, and comes at the direction of the Biden Administration.
“USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation’s children get the critical nutrition they need,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America’s schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines.
“This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It’s a win-win for kids, parents and schools.”
It is also a win-win for the 13 school districts in Bucks County.
Gerard Giarratana, director of food and transportation services for the Palisades School District, said this extension removes all doubt about the program for the coming school year while also allowing the district to continue its current free meal offerings through the summer.
“The extension is outstanding. We actually had meetings in March with our representatives, congresspeople and senators throughout Pennsylvania pushing for this, and they were obviously successful in doing this throughout the country to get the president to extend this,” Giarratana said. “This is an outstanding step for providing free meals.”
Palisades, Giarratana said, is currently providing free breakfast and lunch, seven days a week, to its students. The student improvement has been remarkable, he said.
“It really does make a difference. I find ironic that we’ve tripled the number of students getting lunch and breakfast. It insures they are getting their vitamins, minerals, calories, fruits, proteins and vegetables,” Giarratana said. “We see a marked difference in student’s health and attitude. It might be the only nutritious meal they get, which is not saying anything toward poverty, but just that they might not be eating well.
“Providing students with whole grain cereals and nutritious meals really gives them a leg up on the obesity issue, learning issues, fatigue, attitude, their health and the welfare of their future. That’s what’s best about this.”
According to the USDA, schools nationwide will be allowed to serve meals through the department’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option, which is typically only available during the summer months.
This maintains the nutrition standards of the standard school meal programs, including a strong emphasis on providing fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, whole grains, and sensible calorie levels, while allowing schools to serve free meals to all children.
In addition, schools that choose this option will receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve, which will support them in serving the most nutritious meals possible while managing increased costs associated with pandemic-related operational and supply chain challenges.
This option also affords schools the financial flexibility to further customize their meal service design to fit their local needs.
Bensalem School District Food Service Coordinator Pauline Welch said this extension will remove concern as the district prepares for summer programming and a possible return to in-classroom learning in the fall.
“It’s a great opportunity for all students to continue to receive nutritious meals and provide a safe and efficient meal service in the school year 2021-2022,” Welch said. “Providing meals at no cost will continue to help families financially and provide them with a peace of mind that their children are eating healthy meals.
“Ensuring that all students receive nutritious meals will enhance their concentration in class and a better learning experience.”