GEORGETOWN — Students at four Georgetown County schools are once again being required to pay for their meals.
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things are getting back to normal for the food service at Georgetown County School District.
“Well, back to the new normal, or pre-pandemic normal, anyway,” Brett Streett, executive director for Food Service and Financial Systems for the Georgetown County School District. “We are still dealing with supply chain issues.”
During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had put into place waivers that allowed all students to eat for free, but that waiver program expired July 1.
In Georgetown County, four of the district’s schools will return to charging students for meals. Fourteen district schools will continue to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in qualifying low-income areas.
CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, according to the USDA website, fns.usda.gov.
The schools impacted by the loss of the waivers included Waccamaw High, Intermediate and Middle Schools and Georgetown High School, Streett said.
“Some of our students will have gone through their entire school career without having had to pay up to this point,” Streett said.
Students will pay $2.25 per lunch at the high schools and middle school, $2 per lunch at the intermediate school and $1.25 per breakfast at the four schools, and Streett said the school has been working to remind parents of the charges, as well as encouraging everyone to apply for the CEP program for their children.
There are 180 days in the school year so if a student ate breakfast and lunch everyday it would cost $630 at the middle and high schools and $585 at the intermediate school, Streett said.
“It doesn’t hurt to apply, and the worst that can happen is you’re told ‘no,’” Streett said. “And how many times are we told ‘no’ every day?”
Streett said parents may apply online at www.lunchapplication.com.
Parents can also pay for their children’s meals online through the district website at www.schoolnutritionandfitness.com.
According to the South Carolina Department of Education website, all public schools in South Carolina participate in the National School Lunch Program.
More than 84.2 million lunches were served during the 2008-09 school year. Fifty-eight percent of the lunches were served free or at a reduced in price.
On a typical day, 473,000 students were served lunch in South Carolina public schools. Federal funding for lunches totaled over $140.2 million.
The scope of the district’s food service program is massive. Pre-pandemic, the district was serving 1.5 million meals a year. On average, the district serves 8,000 to 9,000 students a day.
Resuming paying for meals has not been an issue, said Teresa Gamble, the district’s school food service coordinator.
“USDA has paid for school breakfast and lunches for all student for the last two years,” she stated in an email Aug. 23. “As of today 14 of our schools still qualifies for free meal that participates in the Community Eligibility Provision, while only four have to complete a free/reduced meal application.”
Returning to pre-pandemic operations is going well, Gamble said. “Compared to our participation in 2020 first week, our participation is up 4 percent this year.”
Streett said the attendance at meals is split about 60% lunch and 40% breakfast in the district.
One question Streett often hears is why is Georgetown High School not a part of the CEP program?
“When we started the program, we wanted to focus on the younger students,” Streett said. “The elementary students can’t get in their cars and go off campus for lunch like your older students, so we wanted to make sure there were meal options for them.”
For many students, their school meals are their only meals, so Streett said it is important to ensure as many children are fed as possible.
USDA Economic Research Service-sponsored research found that children from food-insecure and marginally food-secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children, according to the website ers.usa.gov.
Breakfast skipping was significantly more common among the food-insecure and marginally secure children. Even at schools with breakfast programs, 20 percent of children from food-insecure and marginally secure households did not eat breakfast, although the reason for the behavior needs more research, the USDA ERS reported.
Streett said the district breakfast offerings include fruit and shelf-stable items that children can take and put in their book bags for later.
“That child can take that breakfast bar, or that apple, and have it to eat later, and that’s a good thing for them if they don’t want to eat it all for breakfast.”
The district will strive to keep student debt to below $25, but no student will be denied a meal for non-payment. “Students will be able to get the same meal as the other students, they just won’t be able to purchase add on items, because they don’t have any money,” he said.
Due to the rising cost of everything, Streett said there had been discussions about raising the prices of the meals, but ultimately it was decided the district wouldn’t increase the price this year.
“We only have X amount of dollars to deal with, and we have to be frugal here for the students,” he said. “And we are a self-supported operation, the district gives a little toward our benefits but otherwise we are self-supported.”
Streett said the district’s 80 food service staff members do a great job of providing meals to the district’s students.
“We do a really good job with what we offer, and I’m very proud of what the staff has done,” Streett said. “I’m very proud of them.”
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