Area school districts will serve thousands of meals a day to ensure children have nutritious food during summer vacation without the pandemic-related restrictions of the past two years.
Schools are offering free summer vacation meals to anyone 18 and under through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Seamless Summer Option. Students are not required to attend school in the district, so younger siblings or children visiting grandparents for the summer can also participate, officials said.
Over the past two years, districts have used strategies such as curbside pickup to continue providing meals. This year, schools can allow children to eat on site.
The Covid-related waivers are expiring, which will create changes in several districts.
In 2020 and 2021, Fayetteville could not do a traditional meal plan throughout the week, said Amy Jefferson, director of infant nutrition. Instead, cafeteria staff prepared five breakfasts and lunches for parents to eat once a week. This year, lunches will be served every day and students will once again be able to eat on site.
The Fayetteville School District plans to feed about 450 to 500 students a day, Jefferson said. Lunches are served at Ramay Junior High and the district also runs a food truck that stops at the Fayetteville Public Library and the Yvonne Richardson Center Monday through Friday, she said.
Free all-kids summer lunches allow students a meal and an outing, Jefferson said. Thirty-eight percent of students in the district are eligible for free and discounted lunches, Jefferson said. The number is used to measure the level of poverty in a district.
A federal waiver under the Seamless Summer Option allowed districts to provide free lunches to all students, whether or not they qualified for free and discounted lunches, during the summer. school year for the past two years. It is due to expire on June 30.
When the waiver expires, a family of four will need to earn less than $51,338 to qualify for discounted lunches and $36,075 to qualify for free lunches during the school year, according to guidelines from the USDA.
Summer meals will continue to be free for everyone under 18.
The Springdale School District has offered curbside pickup for the past two years, according to Gena Smith, director of child nutrition. This year, students will again be able to eat lunch and lunch on site at 10 elementary schools, she said.
The district, which offers a 70% fare for free and discounted lunches, plans to serve 2,600 to 3,000 meals a day, Smith said.
“These are students who depend on us for breakfast and lunch,” she said. “Even though they’re not in class, they’re still developing, and we want them to make sure they still have access to healthy meals so they can grow stronger.”
The Rogers School District offered curbside pickup in 2020 but returned to the community last year, said Kellie Simpson, assistant director of child nutrition.
This year, the district will offer a drive-through site at New Technology High School and deliver meals to six community sites located in apartment complexes, she said. Parents will be required to accompany their children to pick-up sites this year unless the child is attending a summer school or sports program as a covid-related waiver expires, she said. .
Sixty percent of students in the districts receive free or discounted lunches, and Simpson plans to serve about 1,000 meals a day.
Rogers’ mobile program brings meals to students because many food-insecure families have only one vehicle and children have no transportation, Simpson said.
“We found that we’re filling a need in some of the low-income areas of the city,” she said.
The school ensures students have hot meals, fresh fruits and vegetables and cold milk Monday through Friday at all seven sites, Simpson said.
The Bentonville School District received a waiver that allowed it to open more mobile dining sites in 2020 and 2021, according to Janet Schwanhausser, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer. That waiver has expired, which will limit the number of sites, she said.
Bentonville will serve breakfast and lunch at Bentonville High School and Jones Elementary School, as well as lunch at three mobile sites.
While Bentonville has a 25% free and discounted lunch rate — the lowest of the region’s four largest districts — that doesn’t make students struggling with food insecurity any less hungry, Schwanhausser said.
Not having to worry about where their next meal will come from means kids can focus on their summers as kids — playing outside, reading and doing fun activities, she said.