HELENA — The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has extended its summer meal program through the end of the year, or until funding runs out.
The Helena School District had been using a pre-order system for meals, given that students are only attending in-person learning part of the school week. The summer meal program extension will bring free meals to every school age child regardless of economic ability
Food Service Director Robert Worthy says it’s a lot of work to suddenly and drastically change their COVID meal plan system, but absolutely worth it.
“I’m happy to make the changes,” said Worthy. “I mean I spent hours and hours trying to get this stuff to work, but I’m happy to make this change because now I can feed more children where I know it was so complicated kids were having a hard time, and I know kids were going to go without.”
When a child is at school a breakfast and lunch will be available for them, whether they packed their own meal or not.
Meals to take home will be distributed on Wednesdays for every family. Pick-up locations will be posted on the Helena School District website, and signs will be posted at each location indicating where food can be picked up from.
“I still need to offer the distance learning pre-order, because I have to be able to figure out how many people are going to show up, but I can give them 5 meals at a shot and you don’t have to worry about paying for it now. So if a family shows up and they have say five kids and they’re all distance learning, I can give five breakfasts and lunches for all five kids all at the same time,” said Worthy.
The USDA will reimburse Sodexo, the school district's food service provider, for every breakfast and lunch that goes to a child.
Worthy says they’re still rapidly developing and implementing the new system and will need to reduce the menu down for a little while.
Everyday there will be fresh fruit, vegetables and milk and they’ll continue to expand more food options once they have a handle on the new system.
“Eventually we’ll expand to three or four options, but today I need to reduce the menu down to about two things so we can get a better understanding of how it will work,” said Worthy. “But we’ll start food next week. It's stuff like hot pizza and not just cold sandwiches.”
By October, Worthy plans to have food available for every child for weekends too, just like the traditional summer meal program.
“I just don’t have the manpower and capacity right now for these locations,” explained Worthy. “Eventually, ages 1-18 years old it doesn’t matter what your background is, who you’re from or where you’re at, we can offer those free meals.”
The USDA had said multiple times they would not be extending the summer meal program, but reversed course on Aug. 31.
“We had hoped the continuation would be the case, but we kept getting no, no, no this isn’t going to happen,” said Worthy. “I think that enough people from around the country were saying ‘You’ve got to do this.’”
Because the program is so new, families of distance learning students will need to pick up their meals from the summer meal program food truck at Capital High School for the week of Sep. 8.