HELENA — The USDA has changed its Summer Food Service Program to make it easier for families to attain free meals.
The agency reverted to its pandemic operating procedures. Now, they allow kids to take their meals off-site, allow multiple meals to be picked up at one time, and for parents to pick up meals even if their child isn't with them.
The more lenient rules are in contrast to pre-pandemic rules brought back at the beginning of this summer.
Robert Worthy, the Food Service Director for Helena Public Schools and General Manager for Sodexo, says they went from serving around 10,000 meals a week last summer to around 1,500 meals a week at the beginning of this summer. He chalks that drop off in numbers up to environmental and economic factors.
“First of all, the price of gas was very high, price of food is high, the weather was terrible. It started off with the cold, and the wind, the rain. So, it made things hard. People didn't want to drive to the park to go get one meal. So, the USDA started realizing this isn't just here in Helena. This is across the country that people couldn't afford to go get one meal. That wasn't worth their time, but yet those kids are going without meals now,” says Worthy.
The new USDA change helps to make the meals much more accessible to those in need, not just in Helena but around the country.
“There are thousands of kids in the school district who I know could use it and these families can use it. I got a lot of letters from parents saying, you know, thank you for doing this, we don't qualify free re this program, but having this there because we got three kids or four kids on top of the way how much food costs and gas costs this helps us offset this, so we can have more money to pay for shoes and clothes,” says Worthy.
Worth says he hopes there will be more recognition in the future of how important the role school and summer meal programs in fighting childhood hunger.
“Things have changed in the last five years, especially in the last three years. Things aren't like they used to be, and I'm hoping that they can start recognizing that we served a lot of meals. And why? Because there was a need. And that's what they started realizing that, that kids shouldn't have to worry about if mom and dad make enough money, or don't make enough money, to qualify for that free meal,” says Worthy.