COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s 81 public school districts are set to offer free meals for students through 2020 after federal officials recently extended a lunch program distribution waiver that was slated to lapse this month.
In a state where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, ensuring that children have their daily nutritional needs met — even as many of them are learning virtually — quickly became a priority.
“While anticipated or unanticipated school closures impact all students, school closures impact economically distressed, food insecure students most,” Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education, wrote to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regional director in March to request an extension of meal distribution programs through the summer.
That deadline is now pushed to Dec. 31 and gives parents an opportunity to pick up meals at specified curbside locations at no cost to them.
“The USDA offered numerous waivers to states last week, and we are taking full advantage of them,” state Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said.
All districts are expected to apply and be approved for the extension.
Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program is a federally subsidized initiative that reaches nearly 30 million children a day. There were nearly 788,000 students enrolled in South Carolina's public schools last year.
In addition to serving meals inside schools operating on hybrid calendars, curbside distribution and mobile service stops are being used.
For example, Richland School District Two is using several bus routes as community pickup sites, offering curbside meals at eight schools and opening its cafeterias to all students on Mondays and Wednesdays regardless of school opening plans.
The Lexington-Richland Five district has similar plans in place, and Richland One will begin making meals available Sept. 14.
Tracy Dixon, who oversees Richland One's nutrition programs, said officials handed out 8,000 meals daily over the summer, and distributed more than 863,000 over the summer months.
"That gives you an indication of the impact this extension can have for our community," Dixon said.
In Charleston County, students attending school virtually will be able to pick up free meals on a daily or weekly basis.
Students have the option to pick up a hot breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday at a number of schools throughout the district or pick up five days worth of frozen meals each Monday.
According to the Food Action Research Council, South Carolina is seventh nationally in food insecurity, with school-based meals sometimes the only guaranteed source of nutrition for students living in poverty, officials said.
“Many students are dependent upon meals at school for their primary source of nourishment. School closures threaten students’ health and well-being when students lose access to nutritious, appealing meals at school,” Spearman said in her March request.
Jenna Schiferl contributed to this story.