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Federal program providing free food for students to expire, cause changes to local districts

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Posted at 6:43 AM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 11:27:25-04

TAMPA — A COVID-19 pandemic-era federal program to feed students for free is set to expire soon.

“The biggest impact for the students and the families will be the distribution of multiple meals, that will end,” said Lynn Geist, Director of Food and Nutrition for Pinellas County Schools.

Throughout the pandemic, school districts were able to feed students for free. Over the summer, they could distribute seven days' worth of meals at one time, also at no charge. That will now change.

Students will now have to consume any meals they do get, on-site and some students will have to pay, depending on the district.

This is because Congress didn’t extend the USDA’s nationwide nutrition waiver.

The wavier made it easier for schools to provide meals.

“For right now the biggest change for the schools will be that we will go to some schools being community eligible programs, and others go to the free, reduced, paid program,” said Geist.

Schools that are considered community eligible, are able to provide free meals in low-income areas.

For many districts, now these will be the only schools with free food for every child.

An estimated 10 million children will lose access to free lunch across the country.

Food insecurity, which the USDA defines as limited or uncertain access to adequate food, plagued more than 11 million American children before the pandemic. It’s gotten worse since then.

In parts of the Tampa Bay area, school districts report that more than 50% of students are food insecure.

Officials from school districts across the community said they’re doing their best to work with the changes.

“We’re going to do everything we can and we will continue to feed our children the healthy meals. The waivers did not impact the nutrition standards. We were expecting more of an impact but it didn’t happen so we’re happy with that,” said Geist.

Here’s a county-by-county breakdown of how each school district is handling meals for students.

Hillsborough County

  • The school district will be providing meal sites at designated schools but they will not be able to provide the grab-and-go system that’s been utilized over the past two years.
  • Leaders will share more details on how students can get food, next week

Pinellas County

  • Community eligible schools will provide free meals.
  • For non-CEP schools, parents will need to submit a meal application in order to qualify for free or reduced lunch. Otherwise, students will be charged for school.

Pasco County

  • The school district will provide free meals during the summer.
  • Summer food service will begin on June 6 through July 29.
  • Breakfast and lunch will be provided to anyone 18 and younger, Monday to Thursday.
  • For a list of participating locations, click here.

Manatee County

  • Free meals begin May 31 for all kids and teens at multiple locations.
  • This is not an income-dependent program. It’s designed to make sure students have access to nutrition over the summer.
  • Free meals will be provided to students attending school district summer programs, local camps, community centers, and churches. Three mobile food buses and two mobile “Caboose” food vehicles will deliver meals to multiple locations in Bradenton, Palmetto, and Parrish.
  • Meals are required to be eaten on site.
  • To find the nearest food location, call 211, text “Food” to 304-304, or visit the website.

Sarasota County

  • Meals remain free but the district will not be able to provide multiple meals at one time.
  • Breakfast and lunch must be eaten on site.