Forest Grove likely to lose free school lunches
Students in Forest Grove will likely have to buy lunch again next school year, as a federal program to provide universal school meals during the pandemic is set to expire at the end of the month.
"It looks like we will have to charge next year," Forest Grove School District nutrition services director Laycee Pickerill said. "It is going to be a significant change for the community when school lunches are no longer free. Our families have not had to pay for meals since March 2020."
Pickerill added she is still figuring out prices, and it's difficult to predict how the change will impact demand as the supply chain limited the menu, so while food was free, there wasn't as much variety as most years.
All students at Cornelius, Echo Shaw, Fern Hill and Joseph Gale elementary schools will continue to qualify for free meals, as they are eligible for federal provisions based on metrics such as the number of students who qualify for SNAP, migrant status and homelessness.
The district also will continue to provide free breakfast at every school, and through a "Breakfast After the Bell" program started this year, that includes meal carts in the hallways and permitting students to eat in morning classes. District officials estimate over 500 more students ate school breakfast each morning this school year compared to 2019-20, before the pandemic.
As the free lunches at other schools are expiring, Pickerill said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is keeping in place some aspects of pandemic waivers that gave schools flexibility to provide pick-up meals at different hours.
While nutrition directors in Washington County are currently mapping out menus and prices for next school year, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, one of the original sponsors of the free school lunch legislation, said there are ongoing talks on Capitol Hill to extend the program through the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act, which would extend the expiration date for USDA authority to establish, grant, or extend child nutrition waivers for school meal programs through June 30, 2023.
"The child nutrition waivers were essential to addressing food insecurity during the pandemic because they allowed schools to continue providing meals to hungry students even when school buildings were closed," said Bonamici. "I was proud to lead the legislation that made these waivers possible at the time of our greatest need. Because many students and families continue to struggle, I'm co-leading legislation to extend the waivers and give schools in Oregon and across the country the flexibility and support they need to continue providing students with healthy meals."
While the prospects for passing the legislation are unclear, Bonamici said, "Along with the House Education and Labor Committee, we are negotiating with the Senate and doing all we can to get this extension over the finish line."
Natalie Crofts, a spokesperson in Bonamici's office, said the congresswoman is also working on an Early Childhood Nutrition Improvement Act to expand meal programs in childcare centers, Head Start and after-school programs, as well as homeless shelters and other settings, by allowing an additional meal or snack to be served to children in care for a full day. The bill would also make it easier for early learning programs and childcare providers to participate in the program.
On Monday, June 20, Forest Grove started its free summer meal program, supported by a separate federal program. According to advocacy group No Kid Hungry, the free summer meal program has been wildly successful during the pandemic as the number of kids accessing free meals over the summer jumped nearly threefold, from 95 million in July 2019 to over 262 million in July 2020 and 190 million last summer.
"We hope families continue to come and see us as we start serving meals over the summer," Pickerell said. "Monday through Friday, we will be at our campuses and parks, rain or shine."
Summer meals provided by the Forest Grove School District are free to all residents 18 and younger between June 20 and Aug. 26. No registration is required.
Breakfast from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. is available at Harvey Clarke, Joseph Gale, Cornelius and Echo Shaw elementary schools. Lunch is available from noon until 12:30 pm. at those sites as well as Lincoln, Bard, Rose Grove, Harleman and Rogers parks in Forest Grove and Cornelius.
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