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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New federal flexibilities will help keep Spokane children fed

At Stevens Elementary School in Spokane, teacher Casey Campbell, right, offers Trenton Lang, 9, left, a lunch of a chicken drumstick, apple sauce, trail mix and milk in a fourth-grade class in this April 2021 photo. On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that increases eligibility for schools and students to receive cost-free meals.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Schools can continue serving free meals to all students next year regardless of family income.

The new guidelines will reduce the odds that a child will go hungry – at least during the school day. In Spokane, the policy announced this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will aid thousands of families that currently qualify or hover near the free and reduced-priced lunch programs, federal and local officials say.

As schools closed during the pandemic, the USDA eased restrictions so schools could distribute meals to all students at pick-up and drop-off locations.

Those waivers, which were set to expire on Sept. 30, aimed to cut through red tape to allow children to eat free even outside normal meal times.

That flexibility was to expire this fall.

The extension allows public schools to provide meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is usually only available to students during the summer.

The program will also ensure that students are provided meals that include nutritional items such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk, and maintain “sensible” calorie amounts, the USDA said in a news release.

Nearly 12 million children nationwide do not always have access to nutritious meals during the pandemic, according to the release.

“This is very good news,” said Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services at Spokane Public Schools. “It’s very good for us to be able to plan ahead.”

Wordell said that since the pandemic began, the district has seen a 47% increase in breakfast participation.

“More kids are getting breakfasts than ever before,” Wordell said.

Families normally need to meet income requirements to qualify for free breakfasts and lunches.

“One dollar over and you didn’t qualify,” Wordell said.

The news comes with one caveat. Because school districts are reimbursed for the free and reduced-price meals they distribute, it’s important that families continue to fill out application forms.

Otherwise, Spokane and other districts could lose significant federal funding.

“That money goes a long way in supporting academic and other programs,” Wordell said.