In-person lunches, grab-and-go meals free through end of Gahanna-Jefferson school year

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
Gahanna Lincoln junior Ashlynn Brodie gives her lunch request to kitchen staff member Genet Kifle on Feb. 10. All Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools students are receiving free lunches through May 27. The lunches must include at least three of the five designated components: meat or meat alternative, vegetables, fruit, milk and a grain. Students also may buy extra items although the money must be put on the an account because cash is not being accepted at this time.

There is such a thing as a free lunch – and breakfast – in the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools for every student this school year.

Linda Green, the district's child-nutrition supervisor, said the district is trying to make sure all students and parents know plate lunches are free daily at all schools, and breakfast is free at all eight schools that offer it. Blacklick and High Point elementary schools and Middle School East don’t provide breakfast.

Judy Hengstebeck, the district's communications coordinator, said many parents still don't seem to understand that all school meals are free. 

“This includes meals in the cafeteria while in person and grab-and-go meals,” she said.

Hengstebeck said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is covering the cost of the meals until the end of the school year, which is May 27.  

“This is not just for students who already received free or reduced(-price) meals,” she said. “I am afraid some parents think they don't qualify and are not taking advantage of it.”

The USDA has extended dozens of nationwide waivers to protect the health of students, Green said.

Gahanna Lincoln freshman Max Stith scans his card at the lunch checkout Feb. 10.

She said students’ favorite meals have been chosen for in-school menus, including grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken drumsticks and chicken tenders, as well as for the grab-and-go meals.

The grab-and-go meal packs are what parents pick up for the students who are in distance learning.

“Hybrid gets three days worth of meals and distance five days,” Green said. “The distance (learners) get 10 meals, a lunch and a breakfast, no matter what school they go to.”

The district has nine locations for grab-and-go meals to be picked up, with different times of the day for those pickups. 

“I email each Saturday or Sunday the hundreds of families who have signed up,” Green said.

Families must register for the grab-and-go meals online at gjpscovid.info/school-meals and a schedule also is listed there.

After she sends a reminder for grab-and-go meals each week, Green said, some parents will reply with thanks but that they no longer need the meals. 

“I think some did have job loss and took advantage of the meals because they needed to,” she said. “Others understood this was good for our department. It’s so convenient for parents trying to manage distance and hybrid. It’s a challenge for them to learn at home and prepare meals. This is a convenient way for the kids to receive a heathy meal.”

Green said it’s good for the department for families to take advantage of the meals because the district is reimbursed by the USDA for each meal.

“The USDA is reimbursing all school districts on the National School Lunch Program for the meals served,” she said.

Green said she wants to make sure families also know that when students are going through the lunch line, it’s ringing up zero.

“In K-8, we don’t ring up on point-of-sale,” she said. “We just count how many meals we serve. High school goes through point-of-sale. The folks that are packing lunches, we want to make sure they know the meals are free. Some kids are picky and want to pack what they have at home.”

She said extra snacks and entrees are available at the regular price. 

Green said she’s regularly on a Zoom call with other districts in the area. 

“When only half of the students are in school, you’re feeding half the amount,” she said. “So the numbers are really low. All the districts are at a deficit.”

According to the USDA website, on Oct. 9, 2020, the USDA extended flexibilities in its Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option through June 30 to allow schools and other sites to continue to provide meals at no cost to all children.

The department previously extended free meals through December 2020, based on funding available at the time, but now is able to extend throughout the entire 2020-21 school year, thanks to language in the continuing resolution signed into law by former President Donald Trump on Oct. 1, 2020.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla