Economists like to say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Auburn City Schools would beg to differ.
All students in Auburn City Schools will now receive their meals free of charge, whether they are on campus or learning remotely, according to a press release from the school system.
Funding for the lunches is made available by the United States Department of Agriculture which, on Aug. 31, extended waivers to all school systems in the country to provide meals to students at no cost as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, a press release from the USDA states.
“There’s already a need for this service,” said Auburn City Schools public relations coordinator Daniel Chesser. “We do have several students that are doing the remote-learning route that did depend on the free and reduced option when it came to school meals.”
These no-cost meals may help to ease the burden on families feeling the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chesser said.
“I think it applies to anytime, but even more specifically during a pandemic, where there’s a high probability parents may be out of work and not be able to provide the normal resources that they would when they are working,” Chesser said. “To be able to fill the gap as a school system is giving back to the community that makes Auburn great.”
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All students, allowed to choose between in-person and remote instruction, will be able to get the free meals that are being extended to them, Chesser said. Students at any of the system’s 13 campuses will continue to eat in the cafeteria or classroom as before. But there remains a question on how remote-learning students, which currently make up about 29% of Auburn City Schools’ student population, will get their meals. For reference, there were 8,845 students enrolled in ACS in 2019, according to their website.
Right now, the system is trying to gain some more information. They’ve sent out a survey to parents and guardians of remote-learning students to first try and gauge how many families are interested in participating in the program.
“We’re just trying to get an idea of how many meals need to be prepared for remote learners, because there are several remote learners that … might not be interested in taking advantage of the service,” Chesser said. “We don’t want to overdo it or underdo it, we’re trying to hit that target just right so that the service is worthwhile.”
From there, ACS will decide on the logistics of food delivery for remote students.
“What that looks like at this moment, once we collect the survey data, is still being planned out,” Chesser explained. “I think what you’ll see is every school system will probably do it differently.”
ACS closed its campuses following spring break, Mar. 9–13, due to concerns over the pandemic and did not reopen for the rest of the spring semester in accordance with statewide order.
During this time, students who qualified for free or reduced lunch — typically around 30% of ACS’ student population, Chesser stated — were able to visit a pick-up location and get food to cover a school week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches.
“Over the pandemic we had pick-up days, it was every Friday, and if you were a family that qualified for that free and reduced [meals], you were able to come to Auburn Junior High School and have meals that were pre-packaged,” Chesser said. “This was a way to provide families that did qualify for free-and-reduced meals food while schools were closed, because a lot of students depend on schools being open to provide that breakfast and lunch.”
Administrators, teachers, coaches and some local officials, including Auburn Mayor Ron Anders, helped with these distribution days during the early days of the pandemic, Chesser said. Schools found support for the program from all across the community, and the plan went smoothly, barring the Alabama heat, Chesser said.
This doesn’t mean that the school system is going to put the same plan in place now; they are still weighing their options, as Chesser said. Pickup will still only occur once a week, though, Chesser said, and the food will be in bulk to ensure that all students have enough food to carry them through the week.
“You can hang your hat on the fact that these people and these students don’t have the resources, and might not otherwise have the nutrition without that service,” Chesser said.
Free meals will be available as long as funding for the meals from the USDA lasts, which is expected to be through most of the fall semester, potentially until Dec. 31, the press release from the department states.
While it’s not necessary to fill out paperwork to receive a free meal now, Chesser still urged parents and guardians to do so, as the information will be vital to the school system once the current free-meal program ends.
“We are encouraging them to continue to fill out the applications as they would without the waiver,” he said. “That’s how we’re able to get an accurate count for federal funding, post this waiver expiring.”
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