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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ One of the biggest challenges school systems faced when schools were closed due to the pandemic was continuation of the food programs that many low-income families depend on to guarantee a least one good meal per school day for their children.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. When it started, about 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP in its first year. Since then, the program has reached millions of children nationwide and as of 2016 it fed over 30.4 million children.

While funding was still available, the closing of schools in March 2020 effectively stopped distribution of the meals to students. Educators had to improvise to continue getting these meals to those students who relied on them.

While the NSLP is a nationally funded program, the needs of each state and school district are different, and administration and operation of the program is left up to the states and the individual school districts.

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) made a massive effort during the spring and summer of 2020 to get meals to students as well as including enough meals for the weekends. Each school set up drive-through services for brown bag lunches with sealed packages to ensure no contact. They also set up other community locations using school buses where parents could come collect meals as well as written lessons for students who did not have internet capability. Since the end of March 2020, the district distributed more than 2.3 million meals to students across Alachua County.

When the school reopening date was postponed by two weeks until Aug. 31, the SBAC extended the program providing meals at 17 locations on different campuses. In previous years the meals would be available at the schools during class time.

This school year there are three different learning methods with in-class return, the digital learning option, and the eSchool program where a student does not attend school, but rather receives the lessons as an assignment and works at their own pace with no interaction with the school.

Due to the nature of eSchool, students involved in that have never been eligible for the meal program due to federal guidelines.

However, the digital classroom is a new innovation for students who would normally attend school in person but have chosen not to attend due to the pandemic and health concerns. While the students returning to in-class learning can receive their meals at school, this presented a problem for families that chose the digital classroom.

Starting Sept. 1, SBAC Food and Nutrition Services started meal distribution for Digital Academy Students that can be picked up at various locations countywide in the schools. Families of Digital Academy students can pick up meals Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11-1 at the 17 locations. Students will be provided two breakfasts and two lunches on Tuesdays and three breakfasts and three lunches on Thursdays, which will cover meals for school days.

Students registered at a school that qualifies for the national Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program will receive free meals and may pick up meals from one of the 17 locations.

Those attending a non-CEP school (Buchholz, Hidden Oak, Meadowbrook, PK Yonge, Resilience, or Healthy Learning) must pick up meals at Buchholz or PK Yonge. For non-CEP schools, meal pricing will be based on the student’s meal status of free, reduced or paid.

“We consider the curbside meal pickup option a great opportunity for children to stay connected to their schools and to have access to healthy meals at a great value,” said Director of Food & Nutrition Services Maria Eunice. “We would like to encourage all families with children enrolled in Digital Academy to take part in this program.”

Pickup for students participating in the Digital learning program at CEP school locations include Terrwilliger, Westwood, Sidney Lanier, Santa Fe High School, Rawlings, Newberry High School, Norton Elementary, High Springs Community School, Kanapaha Middle, Lincoln Middle, Fort Clarke Middle, Gainesville High, Hawthorne, Archer Community School and Eastside High. More information can be found at the SBAC website https://www.sbac.edu/  

More information on pricing for non-CEP schools is available on the Food and Nutrition Services website at yourchoicefresh.com.

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