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Schools may give free meals to all

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has received waiver approval from the USDA to allow schools to provide free meals to all children during the governor’s mandated school closures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

With the approval schools, which did not meet the threshold of 50 percent of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunches will now be able to offer meals to all student age 18 and under in a community.

In announcing the change, Vonda Ramp, PDE state director for Child Nutrition Programs said, “Schools and community organizations can now use recent and local economic data, including unemployment claims and business closures, to request approval from PDE to qualify as an open meal site.”

Michael Pawlik, superintendent of East Lycoming School District, said that his district had begun offering meals at the beginning of this week with funds from private donations because only 40 percent of students in the district qualified for the free and reduced lunches during the school year.

Pawlik said that when they were informed of the change in the regulations, the district applied immediately and were granted the waiver.

“The only difference in our program now is who will be shouldering the cost for it,” Pawlik added.

He noted that 800 meals were served Monday, the first day of distribution, with students receiving meals for two days. The next distribution is today when students will receive meals for three days.

Pawlik said that the decision to offer five days of meals on two days was made in order to minimize social contact between staff and the public.

The South Williamsport Area School District, which had not qualified under the previous guidelines is not planning to provide meals under a waiver, according to Dr. Mark Stamm, district superintendent.

“It would apply to our district, but we are still not serving meals out of our food service program,” Stamm said.

“The problems for why we never started are still there. To bring my food service staff in, I would be exposing them to potential illness amongst each other. We would have to clean those places everyday. It becomes a challenge to distribute that food,” he said.

He did add that the district will continue to participate in the food backpack program, which he said will be expanded to any district student. Students need to contact their building principal to register.

According to PDE there are already 1,500 food distribution sites in the state and an increase is expected following the approval of the waivers.

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