'Very excited' 

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Cathy Rogers and Michelle Begley work the drive-thru for pickup lunches at Madison Middle School. 

The Madison County School System Food Service Program has served more than one million meals to area children since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those meals have helped to insure that no child would go hungry in Madison County due to lack of access because school cafeterias were closed.

That could change soon.

According to Madison County Food Service Director Scott Anderson, as the school’s food service program transitions from the United States Department of Agriculture’s summer feeding program to the National School Lunch Program, some children could be left without a meal during the school year.

The food service program is currently operating under the Summer Meals Program, which was expanded during the onset of the pandemic months ago to allow schools to serve as many kids as possible.

The Summer Meals Program is more flexible and provides a much more generous reimbursement for meals served and is not constrained by school district lines, Anderson explained.

In the spring, Kentucky went a step further thanks to Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture which worked with the Kentucky Department of Education to give school systems even more flexibility to serve meals by relieving restrictions on meals served in non-congregate settings and the opportunity to operate mobile meal sites and delivery.

“I can feed anyone right now as long as they are 18-years-old and younger. Which is great because the pandemic has switched things up so much. In a couple of weeks, that might not be the case if the rules don’t change,” Anderson explained.

When September rolls around, food service will switch to the National School Lunch Program, which provides a reimbursement to schools for meals served and requires verification that a student attends a particular school in a specific district.

That may leave some children vulnerable to food insecurity, Anderson said.

“Starting in September, we can only feed kids that attend our schools. We will have to verify at meal pickups (for virtual learners) if they are in-fact a student at one of our schools and then those families will only be able to pick up meals at those student’s specific school,” Anderson said.

That could prove troublesome for households with multiple virtual learners in different grades at different schools.

“If you have a child in elementary school, one in middle and one in high school, under the rules now, you would have to go to each school to pick up meals for each child,” Anderson explained. “That’s a lot of work on one family.”

It’s even more alarming for families that had to make tough decisions recently due to job loss or an inability to work from home during the pandemic.

Parents who are relying on babysitters or grandparents in nearby counties to care for students so that they can work, may fall between the cracks when it comes to getting food for those children.

“With the pandemic a lot of things have changed. We know there are going to be some kids that might attend school in Estill or even Lexington but are here in our county because that’s where their babysitter is,” Anderson said. “We would just like the freedom to continue doing what we can to make sure every child has a meal.”

The need is there.

According to Anderson, since March 16, Madison County Schools Food Service program has served 1,299,310 meals.

In July alone, the program served 76,000 pounds of local produce to area kids.

Last week, lawmakers were updated on COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity in Kentucky.

“As people struggle still not earning as much, still not receiving the benefits they’re used to receiving … we’re quite concerned about the impact of the pandemic,” Tamara Sandberg, executive director of Feeding Kentucky, told lawmakers on the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee in a recent testimony.

As of July 21, more than 270,000 Kentuckians did not have enough to eat, according to Sandberg’s presentation.

She said that number is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next 12 months. 

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data from the presentation shows nearly one in seven Kentuckians were food insecure before the pandemic. Sandberg said that included 190,600 children and 1 in 6 of older adults.

Anderson said that is why he and others in the state are pushing for a Summer Feeding Program extension into the school year.

“The barrier is the federal government, I don’t know what is holding it up. I know we aren’t the only district that has requested that this change. They quickly moved in the spring, now they are going a little slower, but the need is still there,” Anderson said. “My staff and I are ready to continue doing what we do, we just need Sonny Perdue (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) to sign off on it.”

In a recent op-ed for the Courier Journal, Quarles and Jefferson County Public School Superintendent Marty Pollio also made a case to either extend summer feeding or allow schools more flexibility when it comes to serving meals.

“Since day one of this pandemic, we’ve worked to do all we can to ensure that Kentucky schoolchildren are fed and we cannot let up now,” the piece stated.

In a recent school board meeting, Madison County Schools Superintendent David Gilliam praised Anderson and his food service team for their hard work in feeding local children.

During the meeting, the school board approved a pay increase for some of Anderson’s staff — many who have continued to work through the summer nonstop during the pandemic.

The board unanimously approved the pay increase, noting that Madison County Schools Food Service Program operates at no cost to the school system’s general budget.

“I want to point out one important thing, that this is not the way it is everywhere,” Gilliam said during the board meeting. “Our food service program is not a drain on our budget and a big part of that is because Anderson reaches out and coordinates food deliveries from food vendors and the Kentucky Agricultural Department at a low cost or no cost to us,” Gilliam said.

For Anderson, until September at least, he will continue to find ways to provide nutritious meals to all kids.

No matter where they go to school.

“I want to feed every kid in Madison County,” Anderson said. “I want to do that as long as I can.”

For now, anyone 18-years-old and under can still receive free meals from the program, the food service director noted.

Meals are available for pickup on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9-1 p.m. at Boonesborough Elementary, B. Michael Caudill Middle School, Madison Middle Schoo, Waco Elementary, Kingston Elementary, Kirksville Elementary, Silver Creek Elementary, Madison Central and Shannon Johnson Elementary.

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