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Waiver allows all Pa. schools to provide free meals to children during coronavirus crisis

Ron Musselman
York Dispatch

The Pennsylvania Department of Education said it has received waiver approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools to provide free meals to all children during the coronavirus crisis.

At least one district in York County, Dover Area, has been approved for the waiver, and Northeastern plans to apply.

This was more of a formality for Dover, as the district began feeding all students early on after “seeing a need in the district that went beyond the confines of eligibility requirements,” said district spokesman Brad Perkins.

In that district, 45% of students are economically disadvantaged, and in Northeastern, that number is 36.6%, according to the state's Future Ready Index.

Previously, schools that did not meet area-based free or reduced-price meal eligibility requirements were unable to offer free meals communitywide.

At least 50% of children had to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, based on school enrollment or U.S. Census data, in locations serving free meals. 

Enrollment for free and reduced-price lunch was under 40% for most York County districts in 2017, the last year of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, except for York City, which has had 100% enrollment since 2015, and Hanover Public, which was at 60.4% in 2017.

Both Northeastern and Dover were between 30% and 40% in 2017.

The new USDA waiver eases those requirements and helps ensure all children have access to food.

More:York County hospitals preparing for potential staff shortage

More:Wolf: Schools shuttered 'indefinitely'

Chartwell's Dining Service emploee Koren Blythe, left, hands lunches to Chartwell's manager Susan Eckert during the  school lunch program at Dallastown High School Monday, March 16, 2020. The school district is offering grab-n-go meals for students weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the Coronavirus emergency. Eckert is the cafeteria manager at Dallastown High School. Bill Kalina photo

South Western also did not meet previous eligibility requirements, but officials had decided to provide free meals anyway and seek reimbursement later, said Assistant Superintendent Daniel Hartman.

"We didn’t want the red tape to hold us back from providing lunches," he said.

Hartman was unsure if the district had applied for the new waiver.

“Schools and community organizations can now use recent and local economic data, including unemployment claims and business closures, to request approval from PDE to qualify as an open meal site,” Vonda Ramp, the Education Department's state director for child nutrition programs, said in a news release Monday.

“Once approved, they can provide meals to all children in their community, age 18 and under, for free.”

There are already approximately 1,600 food distribution sites across the state, which is expected to increase because of the waiver.

Other districts such as West York Area, Central and West Shore already had summer meal programs that allowed them to serve meals communitywide regardless of economic status, so they have continued to do so.

Now, thanks to new legislation that does not require children to be in the car to receive lunches, parents and guardians can come pick up their meals, West Shore spokeswoman Rhonda Fourhman said in an email.

Students now are busy during the day doing schoolwork, as online learning for most began Monday.

Gov. Tom Wolf has closed all schools "indefinitely" to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

— Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @ronmusselman8

Fresh vinyl gloves are at the ready during the school lunch program at Dallastown High School Monday, March 16, 2020. The school district is offering grab-n-go meals to students weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the Coronavirus emergency. Bill Kalina photo