HCPS to offer free meals to all students during virtual instruction

by Julie Hagy, contributor

Curbside meals pickup at city public schools began after the schools shifted to virtual instruction last spring. All photos courtesy of Andrea Early.

For the first time, free breakfast and lunch will be offered at no cost to all HCPS students this school year. During virtual instruction, the meals will be distributed through pick-up and delivery options. Because the program is funded through reimbursement for each meal provided, the district is hoping for a high participation rate from students during the virtual phase of instruction.

The majority of the city’s students will begin the school year entirely online. Their meals will be available to pick up at all city schools on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5:30-6:30pm, starting September 1st. Families unable to make one of those pick-ups have the option of receiving home deliveries Wednesdays. Students who will receive in-person instruction will get breakfast and lunch in school.

The city schools will provide the food through the National School Lunch Program, a federal nutrition program that allows a district to serve meals at no-cost to all students if a certain percentage of them qualify, through federal relief means, for free lunches. HCPS will receive federal reimbursement for each meal served. 

Approximtenly 72% of HCPS students currently qualify for free school lunches, and during the typical school year, 78% of enrolled students eat lunch at school. 

When HCPS shifted to virtual learning in March, an out-of-school meal distribution program began. In the spring, the city’s nutrition team was reaching approximately 1,350 children per evening with meals. That equates to 21% of enrolled students.

Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition, and her team are working hard to increase that number.

“We know food insecurity is a reality. Especially at a time when people are facing job loss and reduced unemployment benefits,” she said.

As part of the effort, the HCPS sent out a census to obtain information about families’ needs during the virtual instruction phase. In addition to questions about childcare and internet access, the census asks families to opt in or out of the school meals. 

As of Thursday afternoon, the census showed 3,721 individual responses, a 57% response rate. Of those respondents, 2,531, or 39%, opted into school meals. 

Early and her team are also working with school liaisons to assess families’ food needs.

“Sometimes when you put out a message to a general public, just because people are aware, doesn’t mean they will access it,” said Sylvia Whitney Beitzel, home school liaison for Waterman Elementary School who has been following up with phone calls and texts to families. “It’s one thing to have free and reduced lunch at school and have kids go to school and know they’re fed. It’s a whole different thing to have kids at home.” 

The district is looking to garner wide participation. 

“School nutrition programs are self-supporting. We generate our own revenues to pay our expenditures,” said Early.

Those expenditures include everything from food procurement to staffing. That means, the more students who participate, the more likely the city will be able to continue to offer free meals to students in years to come. Higher participation also helps support the local food economy.

“Revenue that comes in, we put back in,” said Early, noting that the district purchases vegetables from Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction and beef from local farmers. 

Early said some families have expressed concern that their child’s participation would take resources from another child.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Your child’s participation does not preclude another student from participating. The more people who participate the better it is for everybody.”

“We understand that not everybody has an economic need to come get meals, but doing so can be a sense of normalcy for kids,” Early continued. “Coming to school on Tuesday, Thursday evenings, saying hi to a principal, waving to a teacher, even if it’s socially distant, it’s a connection that is important. It’s a way to stay connected to a part of school that is familiar.”

    The menu will be on a two-week cycle, including a hot meal on the night of pick-up, a heat-at-home meal, and some other cold options. Samplings include General Tso chicken, local tomatoes and lettuce, carrots, cereal bars, fresh fruit, homemade rolls, and milk. Delivered meals will consist of cold selections, and provisions are being made for students with dietary restrictions and allergies. 

Parents or guardians who declined meals in the census but decide once the school year starts that they do want to participate can drive through one of the school locations during the pickup times. Staff will be ready with extra meals and will register kids on the spot, Early said. 

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