The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced Tuesday that it will continue to reimburse schools and childcare centers for free meals provided to all students through the 2021-2022 school year.
For students in local school districts, these meals have been crucial to families throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Due to the fact of families having so many challenges during the COVID pandemic, it has provided us a great opportunity to provide those meals for them," said Jennifer Arlinghaus, the food service direcctor for both Kings Local Schools and Lockland Local Schools.
She said that, during the pandemic, she has seen many families struggle to make ends meet and that more of them are relying on school meals to help keep their children fed.
During the last school year at Kings Local, about 40% of students were eating cafeteria meals. During the pandemic, 60% of students relied on school-provided meals.
"Ensuring that we were able to fill the capacity of the kids, because we're feeding more students," said Arlinghaus.
The USDA says it has granted a nationwide waiver that allows the serving of food outside of standard meal times for several of its child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is typically only available during the summer months.
The USDA says schools that choose the SSO option will receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve, which will support them in serving nutritious meals while also managing increased costs associated with the pandemic.
"It's a pretty significant impact for us and it enables us, ultimately, to feed more kids," said Arlinghaus.
According to the USDA, up to 12 million children are currently living in households where they may not always have enough to eat during the pandemic. And some of these kids rely on these programs for as many as three meals a day.
"That's just one less worry for them as families, to know that they're getting a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch per day," said Arlinghaus.
Local districts in the region are waiting on additional details and guidance from the USDA and the Ohio Department of Education to see how the program will work into next year.