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Schools, Families Adjust As USDA Ends Free Meal Waivers

Boxed lunches
Facebook/Unit 5
Unit 5 and District 87 have multiple locations where schools meals are distributed during remote learning.

Many Bloomington-Normal kids will no longer get the free school meals they've been getting since the start of the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave each school district waivers to put all students on the free meal plan at the start of the pandemic, including during the summer. But as schools reopen, many of them virtually, the federal agency reversed course and now has schools charging those families that typically pay the reduced or full price, based on financial need. 

Caroline Bubulka portrait
Credit District 87
District 87's Director of School Nutrition Caroline Bubulka said the pandemic has caused financial uncertainty for many families in the district.

District 87's Director of School Nutrition Caroline Bubulka said she has written Congress asking the USDA to reconsider.

“Many families have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bubulka said. “A lot of them are in different job situations. They may not have the income that they previously had.”

Unit 5 Director of Food Services Joanna Rewerts said tracking those charges for each family is a challenge, especially since the district is doing meal pickups and deliveries during remote learning.

“They have created more work on the back end of things,” Rewerts said. “The nice thing is we’ve used technology, thankfully."

Families now have to fill out a form online to get daily breakfasts and lunches.

“The meal order form is definitely a big change for us,” Rewerts said. “We have kind of turned ourselves into a curbside restaurant essentially.”

Rewerts declined to say whether she supports the USDA policy change, but added her main goal is to ensure children get fed. She said any family that faces financial hardship can apply for a free or reduced-cost meal at any time. About one-third of Unit 5's students already qualify.

Joanna Rewerts portrait
Credit Unit 5
Unit 5 Director of Food Services Joanna Rewerts said the district now has a meal order form online to help the district track meal charges.

More than half of District 87's students already get free lunches.

Bubulka said she's noticed fewer families are picking up meals now that they are no longer free.

“We would imagine if we were still offering free meals, we would have more students coming to pick up meals,” Bubulka said.

Bubulka said the policy change also reduces the district's federal reimbursement and restores more strict meal planning guidelines.

Unit 5 has meal pickups at Cedar Ridge and Sugar Creek elementary schools and Normal West High School. The district also plans to use First Student buses and drivers to deliver meals into neighborhoods where they can be picked up at designated times.

District 87 handles meal distribution at each of its schools, plus Friendship Park, Woodhill Towers Apartments, Sunnyside Park and Arbors at Eastland apartments.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.