K-12 schools can continue offering free school meals for 2021-2022 school year

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

Pennsylvania's K-12 schools will have the option to continue offering free school meals during the 2021-22 school year, according to a Department of Education announcement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services on Monday released a group of waivers and eligibility guidelines allowing schools to offer the meals without determining eligibility based on the student’s household income. Participating schools will operate under the Seamless Summer Option and will receive a higher federal reimbursement rate per meal.

“I’m grateful to the USDA for their commitment to combatting hunger throughout this pandemic,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said in a state news release. 

Assistant Cook Miranda Lopez packages lunches of turkey and gravy that will be served to-go to children 18 and under at Jackson K-8 School in York City, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Along with lunches, children also receive breakfast and snacks for the following day. Dawn J. Sagert photo

K-12 schools had the option to provide free meals to students during the 2020-2021 school year as well, and several York County school districts participated, including Dover and York Suburban. Officials from both districts said the continuation of the waivers will allow their districts to keep meal options the same for their students. 

The COVID-19 pandemic elevated the need for free and reduced-price meals as food insecurity levels rose statewide. According to the nonprofit Communities In Schools of Pennsylvania, food insecurity for children in the state rose from 15% to 35% during the pandemic, partially due to the increase in at-home learning limiting food access in some households. 

More:York City School District receives grant funding for summer meal program

More:York County school districts launch summer meal programs to feed kids

During the summer, many York County school districts have launched meal programs to combat food insecurity while students aren't in school. At least eight of the county's 16 public school districts are running curbside meal pickups for students 18 and younger. 

Schools that elect not to serve free meals through the Seamless Summer Option will determine eligibility for free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program using federal income guidelines. The new eligibility guidelines went into effect July 1, 2021 and allow schools and other institutions and facilities to determine eligibility for the program, along with several other federal food programs.