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New restrictions possible for Guilford schools' grab-and-go meals in September

New restrictions possible for Guilford schools' grab-and-go meals in September

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GREENSBORO — Since March, Guilford County Schools’ grab-and-go meal distribution for children has been come one, come all.

That could change Aug. 31.

Unless the federal government decides to waive key requirements for the upcoming school year, Guilford and other districts using remote learning will have to switch to a more restrictive, smaller meals service, no longer open to all children.

Those restrictions also could get in the way of the efforts of volunteers, like L. Zeno, a retired nurse in Greensboro, who pick up meals to distribute to children in multiple households.

“This COVID thing has turned families upside down,” Zeno said. “My great-grandkids, they just look for Meemaw to come by with the food.”

The district would provide grab-and-go meals to its own students for pickup at their schools during remote learning after Aug. 31, even without additional waivers, Angie Henry, the district’s chief of finance and operations confirmed Wednesday night.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture website stresses, however, that states must only allow eligible students or parents and guardians of eligible students to pick up the meals.

Henry wasn’t clear Wednesday night on the details of how the schools would run meals after Aug. 31 without additional waivers, but discussed the possibility of students or their parents or guardians coming to their schools to purchase meals or receive free meals if qualified. Students who previously got reduced price meals can get them for free this year, with the state picking up the tab.

This is all still a far cry from the type of food distribution Guilford County and other school districts have been doing since in-person classes halted in March.

When the school closures began, the federal government allowed school districts to follow the summer feeding program model used each year. That allowed the district to distribute free meals at sites throughout the community, not just schools, and to any children under 18, no questions asked.

Furthermore, the rules were relaxed due to the pandemic so that the children did not have be present, and adults could get the meals for them. That continued through the summer.

Guilford County Schools is currently serving 19,000 to 20,000 students per day at meal sites throughout the county, including many community sites as well as schools. That’s down from the 33,000 to 34,000 meals it was serving during remote learning this spring, but about three times more per day than last summer, prior to the pandemic. Sites have been offering meals Monday through Thursday, with additional meal offered on Thursday for use on Friday.

Of the just over 100 meal distribution sites the district operated this summer, fewer than half were located at the district’s actual school buildings, with the rest in neighborhood locations.

Politico reported last month that the Urban School Food Alliance and School Nutrition Association are asking Congress to step in to allow districts to continue to operate on the summer feeding model.

“If USDA doesn’t extend the flexibility through the fall, families may be able to get food for their children only from the school where they are enrolled, after being deemed eligible for help — a change that would create logistical barriers for many families, particularly those without cars or with parents working multiple jobs,” wrote reporters Helena Bottemiller Evich and Juan Perez Jr.

Henry said Guilford County Schools hopes Congress will act to extend the waivers to keep the summer feeding program going past Aug. 31. That date is already an extension; schools had been told they could run the summer feeding program through the end of July.

“It’s been a waiting game to see what’s available,” Henry said. “It’s unfortunate that we need to be worrying about this at this point, rather than how we are feeding our students.”

Brittany Cook, the cafeteria manager at Gillespie Park Elementary, said Monday she and her staff have been told they have work through August 31, but they don’t know what’s coming after that.

“My ladies need to know if they need to go find a second job,” she said. “They’ve got to let us know something.”

Henry said she expects the district would serve less food and therefore need fewer work hours from cafeteria staff during remote learning, especially if they don’t get the waiver. However, she’s not ready to say if any staff would be furloughed. Some staff members have left because of health concerns or for other reasons, she said, so there may be plenty of work for those who remain.

Henry pointed out that the district needs its workers to stick around in case school returns after Oct. 20. Another complication is school nutrition workers are paid directly from school meal sales and federal meal reimbursements, so the school district cannot easily assign them other duties.

Cook said at Gillespie Park Elementary, they are giving out about 100 meals per day to roughly 12 individuals. It’s typical she said, for some people to pick up bunches of meals, including people who are supplying large families or group homes.

She and her staff bring the meals out to people who pull up with their cars.

One of those who stopped by on Monday was grandfather Timothy Madkins, who said it would be devastating for him if the schools ever stopped offering meals.

“I have all my grandkids during the week,” he said. “Six or 10 sometimes.”

Zeno, the retired nurse, said she’s trying to do her part for families reeling from the problems posed by the pandemic.

Some parents, she said, are so bogged down by having to simultaneously work from home and take care of their children that even collecting or preparing a quality lunch for their children during the day becomes difficult.

Parent Sandra Isley also was at Gillespie Elementary on Monday, picking up meals for multiple families.

She pointed out that many people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. While Congress is still debating what to put in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill, the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits from the federal government has expired.

“I don’t understand how they think they can take people’s lifelines in a time like this,” she said. “It’s nobody’s fault this is happening. You have to step in and help folks.”

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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