After five months of providing free meals to children 18 years old and under, CCS School Nutrition Services will resume its normal school breakfast and lunch programs on Aug. 31. Under this program, meals will only be available to enrolled CCS students through 12 curbside pickup sites, with mobile routes ending Aug. 28.
CCS School Nutrition Services announced this decision last week after the department learned extensions of eligibility waivers and additional state funding would likely not be passed — meaning they could not continue to feed the community at large through the summer food service program.
Between March 17 to Aug. 14, CCS provided 388,050 free meals in Chatham County, said Jennifer Özkurt, the director of school nutrition services for CCS.
“We’re trying to just stay as consistent as possible, because families are having to deal with so much change right now,” Özkurt said. “Last week, we got notification that it was unlikely that those waivers were going to be passed, meaning that we will not be able to feed the community at large, so the only other option we have is to go back to the standard (programs).”
At the beginning of the pandemic, 46% of Chatham County’s public school students received free and reduced price meals, the News + Record reported in May. Even before the economic impacts of the coronavirus hit, there were already a number of students — around 4,200, Özkurt said at the time — who relied on the school system for regular meals.
From March 17, the start of the district’s COVID-19 meals guidelines, CCS averaged 25,532 meals per week through June 12 and 7,017 meals per week during summer feeding, June 21 to Aug. 14. Özkurt said this downward trend is typical of most summers, and that sites provided free meals to and children 18 years or under through the summer.
CCS meals under Plan C
As was the case during the summer, meals can be picked up between 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays at the district’s 12 pickup sites. Friday meals will still be available for pickup on Thursday.
Starting Aug. 31, a PowerSchool student ID or student meal account number must be presented at time of pickup by the student, parent or guardian. Meals will be applied to a student’s account, Özkurt said, “just like in a normal school year.” Families must apply by Oct. 7 for free and reduced price meals, with only one application per family needed. Applications can be completed online at www.lunchapplication.com or picked up at schools. Paper application can be returned to schools, central office or mailed to P.O. Box 128, Pittsboro, NC 27312.
“I’m encouraging every single family to apply right now,” Özkurt said. “It’s just a quick and easy service. And that’s one thing parents are not having to worry about this school year.”
The district is encouraging people to fill out an online application, as it is the most accurate and efficient method — all applications are processed within 72 hours of being received, which means online applications get processed more quickly than paper applications that must be mailed.
Families apply for benefits based on their income, Özkurt said, with household with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level eligible for free school meals, and households with incomes between 130 to 185% of that level eligible for reduced price school meals. For the 2020-21 school year, students who qualify for reduced price meals will also have their breakfast and lunch fully covered, thanks to the passage of House Bill 1023, which transfers funds from school bus replacements into school nutrition. Normally, the co-pay for reduced meals is no more than 40 cents.
Özkurt said she is anticipating more students will receive free or reduced price meals this year, based on the negative economic impacts of the pandemic and high unemployment rates in the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in North Carolina was 7.6% in June. This rate marks a significant fall from May, when the rate was 12.8%, but it’s more than double the state’s pre-pandemic rate of 3.6% in January.
“We know that many people are having to make that sacrifice to stay home with their children because there children are at home,” she said. “So if you just kind of look at all the variable factors related to the school, I know that there’s going to be that need and people should just really take advantage of the service that is there.”
In May, the News + Record reported that the CCS nutrition program would lose money through its coronavirus free-meal efforts.
At the time, Özkurt said the district could also make money to operate the food nutrition program from “supplemental sales,” or meals purchased by students and faculty who don’t receive free and reduced meals.
That same month, the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group that represents school nutrition personnel, reported that 68% of school meal program directors said they anticipated a finanical loss and another 23% were “uncertain about financial losses.” Nearly 1,900 school districts nationwide were represented in the survey.
“As schools closed their doors, school nutrition professionals quickly transitioned from cafeteria service to curbside pickup, and have continued serving on the frontlines to ensure hungry students have access to healthy meals during COVID-19 closures,” SNA President Gay Anderson said in a press release accompanying the survey results in May. “Despite these tireless efforts, school meal programs nationwide are experiencing crippling financial losses that could impede efforts to serve students next year.”
Starting Aug. 31, additional meals will be charged with a la carte pricing: breakfast for $2 and lunch for $4.
At the Chatham County Board of Education’s April meeting, Superintendent Derrick Jordan also emphasized the cost of providing free meals.
“You are in (school nutrition) to try and make money, keep it solvent,” Jordan said. “We certainly will lose money as a result of this. We are appreciative of the efforts, both at the state and national level to soften the decrease that our district, along with many others across the country, will experience.”
The Board of Education announced Aug. 10 that the fully remote learning option, “Plan C,” would be extended at CCS from four weeks to nine weeks. Still, the CCS nutrition program is already preparing for the possibility of Plan B — and potentially more meals to prepare.
“We’ve been planning,” Özkurt said. “But you plan with so many unknowns, and it will be a work in progress, we know that.”
She added that the department currently anticipates in-class feeding for both breakfast and lunch, which she said would be the least complex option for distributing meals. Under this option, meals would be ready for students when they arrive to school and dropped off for lunch. She said the schools are completing state-provided trainings and doing mock runs to practice safety precautions and plan for various scenarios.
Through all the planning, she said she’s emphasized one thing: flexibility.
“I told them in our back to school meeting this week, every day, I could be saying one thing in the morning and then have to come and retract or lead you in a different direction and we just have to accept it and move forward,” she said. “The one thing that we’re all really kind of positive about is that these changes due to the pandemic, are actually creating some good spotlight on our program as a whole and how really essential we are — that we kind of just been overlooked as a department — and that has really boosted their self esteem and they feel valued.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com.