Education

Amidst shutdown, kids still getting free or reduced-cost school lunches — for now

A hot lunch with fresh fruit and vegetables is served at Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma, Nov. 16, 2018. Local districts say federal money for free and reduced lunches is available for now despite the partial government shutdown.
A hot lunch with fresh fruit and vegetables is served at Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma, Nov. 16, 2018. Local districts say federal money for free and reduced lunches is available for now despite the partial government shutdown. phaley@thenewstribune.com

As the government shutdown reaches four weeks, Pierce County students receiving lunches for free or at reduced cost will continue to get them — for now.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shared with school districts this month that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is funded through March.

“It’s hard to imagine the government shut-down would last longer than that,” Corine Pennington, Puyallup School District chief financial officer, wrote in an email shared with The News Tribune. “Regardless, our expectation would be that we could continue to bill the program and we would get paid eventually.”

The longer the shutdown, the higher the risk for nutrition program funding, and higher the possibility families could see some changes.

“Because Child Nutrition is a federal grant program, funding may be in danger if the government shutdown continues,” Bethel School District announced in a press release.

Some school districts already have felt the pressure and reduced lunch sizes and options. One school district in North Carolina has removed fresh produce, bottled juices/water and ice cream from the menu and is only serving “one entree, a piece of bread, two vegetables, one piece of fruit and milk,” The Sacramento Bee’s Mark Price reported.

While uncertainty remains over when exactly the shutdown will end, OSPI child nutrition director Leanne Eko said districts are feeling comfortable with the allotted funding.

Tacoma, Puyallup and Bethel school districts notified federally furloughed families this month that they may temporarily qualify for free or reduced-priced meal benefits in light of the shutdown and possible impacts on household income.

Families can drop off furlough letters at their district offices.

“While free or reduced-price meal eligibility is intended to reflect actual annual income, applications may reflect the current household situation,” stated an OPSI memo to school districts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in a memo on Jan. 8 that child nutrition programs would be funded “into the month of March,” including NSLP, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Milk Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and State Administrative Expenses.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, is funded through February.

Local food banks are emphasizing their open doors as the shutdown reaches its 27th day and some employees start missing paychecks. Nourish Pierce County sent out a notice Thursday about the shutdown.

“We know that the shutdown is impacting our neighbors here in Pierce County,” the nonprofit wrote. “Whether it is from a missed paycheck or an unavailable service, the shutdown is making it more difficult for members of our community to feed themselves and their families.”

Nourish Pierce County Executive Director Sue Potter pointed to one example of increased visits: 50 people were served at the most recent mobile food bank trip to the city of Roy. Typically, 30 people are served at the weekly-two hour outing.

“That’s unusual because we’re there every single week,” Potter said.

The Emergency Food Network, which provides food for 71 food banks and pantries across the county, echoed that its partners are seeing increases in visits, said EFN Executive Director Michelle Douglas.

“We’ve never seen this before,” Douglas said. “No one can meet the need. If every SNAP family suddenly lost benefits ... The impact is huge.”

Free & Reduced Lunch Application Information

Tacoma Public Schools: tacomaschools.org, 253-571-3378, nutritionservices@tacoma.k12.wa

Puyallup School District: puyallup.k12.wa.us, 253-841-8773

Bethel School District: bethelsd.org, 253-683-6912

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