All public school students in Athens or Limestone County, regardless of family income, are now eligible for free meals through the end of the school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture previously announced free meals would be available until the end of the calendar year, based on funding available at the time. On Friday, the USDA announced their unprecedented move was being followed by another one — extending that availability until June 30, 2021.

"As our nation recovers and reopens, we want to ensure that children continue to receive the nutritious breakfasts and lunches they count on during the school year wherever they are, and however they are learning," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said. "We are grateful for the heroic efforts by our school food service professionals who are consistently serving healthy meals to kids during these trying times, and we know they need maximum flexibility right now."

The flexibilities work by allowing schools and local program operators to leverage the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option to provide no-cost meals to all children at more than 90,000 sites across the country, including all Athens City and Limestone County schools.

When this option was first announced in late August, ACS Child Nutrition Coordinator Tandy Blackwell and LCS Child Nutrition Director Teresa Rogers each shared how excited they were for the school systems to have one more way to help families during the pandemic. The systems already offer free breakfast for all students, with nearly half of those students also qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

"We have just been waiting and waiting and advocating as much as we could for USDA to do this," Blackwell told The News Courier in September. "It's great for our students and our community."

Cedar Hill lunchroom

Students at Cedar Hill Elementary School enjoy lunch in the cafeteria Sept. 2, 2020. A new, unprecedented move by the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week has provided for free meals to children 18 and under across the country through June 2021, regardless of family income or whether they're a traditional or virtual student.

 

It also helps the schools financially. LCS typically spends about $400,000 a month on student nutrition, and ACS expenditures run about $216,000 a month. They receive reimbursement based on how many students have filled out the form for free or reduced lunch. Schools across the area strongly encouraged families to complete the form this year, regardless of whether they would normally qualify, to help the systems and the USDA keep an accurate count of how many children they feed.

"This is going to help tremendously, because we will get reimbursed at the free rate for lunch and for breakfast, for all students," Rogers said.

Families should contact their student's school for more information, including pickup arrangements for remote-learning students.

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