POLAND – It turns out there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Menu for RSU 16 elementary schools during September.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed recently to extend a series of waivers allowing public schools to continue providing free breakfast and lunch to all students who want it until at least Dec. 31.

But the funding for the program doesn’t cover the unexpectedly high tab for making the food available to students during a pandemic.

Kenneth Healey, superintendent of RSU 16, said his three-town district may wind up paying as much as $100,000 extra this year for disposable bags, throwaway flatware, little packs of condiments and other related items that have to be used to keep students safe.

He told school board members this week the program’s extension is “really good news for our students, but it will be costly for our district.”

The reimbursement the district receives for each meal “does not cover the full cost of preparing and delivering” them, Healey said.

School districts across the state have adopted measures to deliver meals to students who are not in the building, typically bagging or boxing them up for delivery or pickup, often a week’s worth at the same time.

In school, they’re generally using grab and go meals to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus that has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans since March.

In Auburn, school nutrition Director Chris Piercey wrote to parents before classes got underway to explain that any students who want breakfasts or lunches on days they’re studying at home should expect a weekly package that contains all of them.

“Breakfast will consist of all shelf-stable options including juice that all meet the USDA meal pattern requirements, Piercey said, and “lunch will be provided with all your students’ school lunch favorites and will arrive frozen to allow for maximum flexibility for your family to decide when to eat.”

“Milk will be provided in bulk in quart containers,” Piercey said.

Separating all those meals requires a number of boxes and bags designed to be thrown out after use.

Schools are trying to minimize the use of anything that requires people to touch items used by others, to avoid the possibility of spreading COVID-19.

Food advocates are pushing the federal government to extend the free meal program through the academic year.

School Nutrition Association President Reggie Ross said in a prepared statement that “in the midst of a pandemic, no family should have to worry about their child missing out on healthy school breakfast or lunch.”

“School meal programs face unprecedented challenges and need the assurance that these critical waivers will be available through the entire school year,” Ross said.

Sonny Perdue, the nation’s agriculture secretary, has said Congress has not funded the program enough to extend it beyond Dec. 31. He said it might not even have enough money to continue the waivers through December that allow for free meals for all students.

Without the waivers, the USDA reimburses district only for the meals distributed to qualified low-income students, who can get either free or reduced-price meals.

About 44% of Maine’s 180,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. There are also some districts with enough poverty that every student qualifies.


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