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School corporations apply for waivers as nationwide free-meal policy ends

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The nutrition director for one school corporation said Monday the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how many students depend on free meals to get through the day.

Perry Township Schools are one of at least 12 to 18 school corporations in Indiana that is applying for a district-wide community eligibility provision, or CEP, waiver from the United States Department of Agriculture this school year. This means the corporation would be able to serve free breakfasts and lunches to every student in every one of its schools regardless of income. Child Nutrition Director Erin Coleman said, Perry Township Schools have used CEP waivers for individual buildings in the past, but has never before asked for a blanket waiver.

“The (pandemic-era) waiver was a tremendous help, not only for the school districts themselves but also for our families,” Coleman said. “They didn’t have the income. Many people lost their jobs, so it was a way to just help assist them.”

The USDA normally requires at least 40 percent of students in a school building or district to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals before allowing CEP waivers. Otherwise, students have to fill out an application to get their meals for free. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, federal officials waived those requirements, which meant school meals were available for free to everyone nationwide. The policy expired this summer, so that means low-income families once again face pre-pandemic eligibility rules. Coleman said, the end of the policy played a key role in her district’s decision to apply for a waiver. She said about 80 percent of Perry Township students are eligible for free meals.

“We didn’t want that sticker shock for our families to go from having these free meals to having them ripped out from underneath of them,” Coleman said. “We knew there was a need and we wanted to continue to offer those free meals. And if we qualify for a program that allows us to do that, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

The use of CEP waivers on a district-wide level is neither new nor universal. Indianapolis Public Schools has had free meals for everyone since the 2014-2015 school year, while officials with Decatur Township Schools said, they want to first see how many eligible students they have since they redrew their boundaries. Tarrah Westercamp, of No Kid Hungry Indiana, said more school districts are investigating CEP waivers not only because they help feed children, but also because they cut down on paperwork. Students who apply for free school meals normally have to provide documentation every year. Westercamp said, if you qualify for any kind of public assistance or otherwise face financial hardship, you should talk to your school corporation’s food service director and apply for free meals.

“Even if you’re not sure, it’s not going to hurt the student at all,” she said. “That one application is used for textbook assistance, extracurricular assistance, text exams, all kinds of things throughout the school environment.”

If your district doesn’t qualify for a CEP waiver or you are unable to secure free meals, Westercamp said, to check with local churches and food pantries. Sites such as Community Compass can help you find one near you. In addition, Coleman said some school corporations have school backpack meal programs, especially during summer months.