Columbus and Park City schools approved for free lunch and breakfast for all enrolled students

Thursday, October 22, 2020
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Columbus and Park City School Districts secured free lunch and breakfast to all enrolled students for the 2020-21 school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced last Friday that the Summer Food Services Program (SFSP) was extended to June 2021. The program is designed to provide COVID-19 relief for communities impacted by COVID-19.

Previously, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) required 50 percent of the enrolled students to qualify for free or reduced meals in order to be eligible for no cost programs for the entire district.

Families on TANF, SNAP or foster programs received direct certification for free or reduced meals through the state normally. The school also sends out applications at the beginning of every school year, which take into consideration the total income of the household.

But this year all students will receive free breakfast and lunch. Due to adjusted qualifying numbers, Columbus and Park City schools became eligible for the SFSP free meals program through the end of the school year, June 2021.

In a letter to the director of School Nutrition Programs, OPI Director Angela Kline wrote that “business closures and job layoffs have rapidly increased the concentration of low-income families in Montana,” prompting the program to expand eligibility for the SFSP.

Columbus School District Assistant Business Manager Michelle Mills said the school was approved for the program in mid-September. She was able to roll back the free meals to Sept. 1.

“We weren’t going to do it at first,” Mills said. “But then some parents reached out to us who had lost their job.”

In the application, Mills explained that residents had experienced job loss and that, as a rural community with limited job availability, economic recovery from COVID-19 may not be easy.

Parents won’t receive cash refunds, but the money spent on meals in September will be reimbursed on their child’s account to pay for a la carte items that are not included in the program.

During the school closures last spring, Columbus School District was not able to provide information that demonstrated the increased need in the community due to construction projects at the schools, leaving OPI to designate Stillwater Youth Center as the primary SFSP distribution location.

Mills said she doesn’t know if the program will be available through next summer or if the district will participate if it is.

“If we can’t serve out of our kitchen then we won’t do it,” Mills said. “The cost is too high.”

Students participating in remote learning or are under quarantine can still pick up no cost meals at the school for both Columbus and Park City.

Park City Superintendent Dan Grabowska said that Park City’s free meals started on Sept. 22.

“Because it is pandemic related, it (was) not the difficult process it would normally be,” Grabowska said. “In order for us to qualify, the feds...allowed the state to look at criteria other than our Free and Reduced count. I believe ours was the community poverty rate. I think our poverty rate is right around 32 percent.”

Park City numbers fell just within the waiver provisions. Grabowska said their waiver lasts until December 31, 2020.

Park City’s remote students can pick up meals at 12:15 p.m. They will pick up the next day’s free breakfast at that time as well.