SOUTHERN INDIANA — School districts in Clark and Floyd counties are offering free meals for all students through the end of the semester.

The districts have received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide free breakfasts and lunches for enrolled students, including both traditional and virtual students. Greater Clark County Schools, New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp., Silver Creek Community School Corp. and Borden-Henryville School Corp. were approved for the funding.

Everyone qualifies for the free meal program regardless of income level. The Indiana Department of Education is working in coordination with the USDA to offer the waiver, which is available until Dec. 31, 2020 or until funds run out.

Natalie Turner, food service director at Greater Clark, said she is excited to be able to help out families who are struggling, whether they are unemployed or struggling from the financial hit caused by the pandemic. The free food program began Monday for the school district.

“Regardless of their financial situation, it’s one less thing for them to worry about,” Turner said. “On top of dealing with the different learning styles being offered right now, families will not have to pack lunches at home before sending kids to school, and they don’t have to worry about putting money in their kid’s account or sending money with them to school. “

Since enrollment is down, participation in Greater Clark’s food services has decreased as well, and the district is trying to be as accommodating as possible for families, Turner said. Starting in October, the district will offer a free meal service for anyone ages 18 or younger, even if they are not enrolled in Greater Clark. It will also offer meal services on Saturdays and Sundays during scheduled eLearning periods.

“Our kids have had a lot thrown at them this year, and they’ve had to adapt to a lot of learning styles, whether it’s in-person or online,” Turner said. “They don’t have to worry about food service — it will be readily available to all families, and we’ll be able to take some financial burden off of families who might be struggling.”

Greater Clark is encouraging families to order online so the district knows how many meals to prepare, Turner said.

Pam Casey, food services director for NAFC, said she is excited that families who normally pay full price or reduced price for school meals will benefit from the USDA’s waiver.

“We hope families will take advantage of it while it’s available,” she said.

NAFC also has seen a decrease in kids using its food services program, Casey said.

“Enrollment is down a little, and a lot of kids are off-campus virtual learning and many parents aren’t taking advantage of the meal program,” she said. “Some are packing lunches because they have COVID concerns. We’ve reassured everyone we’re going over-the-top with safety and sanitation, but it seems to be that fear people have of going out to eat.”

Josh Sinclair, food services director at Silver Creek, said the USDA program is a “lifeline” that will help with challenges families are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It means the world to us to be able to reach out to some students who might not have the income to buy lunches or breakfasts, whether it be because their parents or guardians are out of work because of COVID or having to work from home is making things more difficult for them,” he said. “We’re blessed to be able to do that — it helps control costs more and allows us to continue to provide high-quality meals for students.”

The program began Monday at Silver Creek. Sinclair said participation in the district’s food services has been down since school reopened amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so he hopes to see an increase with the free program.

On Monday, about 360 students received meals at Silver Creek Elementary School compared to an average of about 270 students per day this school year, according to Ashley Miller, the school’s cafeteria manager.

The free meal program began Friday at Borden-Henryville. Interim Superintendent Sam Gardner said he is pleased the district is able to offer the program for students learning in-person or virtually.

The administration received approval for the program last week, and the district quickly made adjustments to make sure there was enough food on hand to begin, he said.

“I think it’s significant, and I’m glad we’re able to do it, particularly for the families that need to have it done,” Gardner said.

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