Home > Press > Schools aim to feed students — including remote learners — this fall

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

In the spring, when COVID-19 restrictions shut down schools all over, school districts and nonprofits moved to help keep children fed no matter where they were, helped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly relaxing its rules on who could get meals and who could distribute them.

Now that educators are gearing up again for classes to resume in the fall, officials across the Pittsburgh region are committed to keeping the kids fed, but — as with everything during the pandemic — complications are abundant and constantly changing.

The USDA has not yet extended its rule waivers to the 2020-21 school year, which worries school districts starting classes this week and next.

“We know these meals have been a lifeline for some of these kids,”  Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Karen Dreyer said.

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Many schools are still plotting out their fall schedules. Some districts plan to use remote learning or hybrid models in which students are in school some days and learning from home on others. Others are starting off entirely online. The variations are wide and could continue to change in the event of a new spike in COVID cases.

That added to the fact that a surge in unemployment means more families may need help to keep their children fed.

Laura Stephany, health policy coordinator for nonprofit Allies for Children, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March that her organization estimates 60% of children in Allegheny County qualified for free meals before the pandemic. Five months later, “it’s likely that that number has increased as families have lost income,” she said.

Early on in the pandemic, the agriculture department moved to allow schools to serve all children for free without having to meet eligibility rules. The agency also allowed food distribution outdoors and to parents. Non-school groups also were allowed to distribute meals.

Even without an extended waiver of those rules, there are ways to get help. Ms. Dreyer, who picked up a new title in the last few months as  director of child nutrition programs for the food bank, focuses on working with local school districts, including those that qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Provision because the per-capita income qualifies all students for free lunches and breakfasts.

One district that’s newly serving free meals based on the community provision is Northgate, which serves Bellevue and Avalon residents. Classes start Aug. 31 with all students learning virtually, and families can order a week’s worth of free meals every Monday to be picked up on Wednesdays at one of two schools.

Ms. Dreyer encouraged more districts to apply because more will qualify due to COVID-19-caused unemployment. Without USDA waivers, families will have to apply and qualify for assistance, some students will have to pay for their meals, and schools will have to keep records.

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