COPLEY TOWNSHIP, Ohio — The U.S Department of Agriculture is once again serving up the option of free meals in schools nationwide.
With the pandemic putting many Americans in a pinch, the USDA extended the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), which is typically only available during the summer months. Many school districts also offered free breakfast and lunches during the last school year.
By continuing the program, students will have options for free meals throughout the 2021-2022 school year in districts that choose to participate.
"We actually are not required to participate in this program, but we as a district-- our board of education and our administration-- we thought it was something that was very important for us to offer our families because we know there are families that are struggling," said Steve Robinson, business manager for the Copley-Fairlawn School District.
The program makes a big difference when it comes to the number of meals served among 2,800 Copley-Fairlawn students.
For example, in March of 2019, about 15,000 meals were served. Half of those were free, the other half were paid meals. Compare to that March 2021, when about 30,000 free meals were served across the district.
Robinson said parents don't need to fill out any paperwork in order for their kids to get the free meals.
"Parents don't need to do anything at all. They just need to participate in the meal program," he said.
Ashlee and Jeremy Eskelsen, parents of four boys, choose the on-line school option for their two oldest children last year.
However, they were able to do weekly food pickups during the school year even though they typically wouldn't meet the income eligibility requirements for free or reduced meals.
"At first, we were a little hesitant to be honest that we wouldn't qualify on an income basis," Ashlee Eskelsen said. "It has been a huge help to my family on so many different levels."
The family, which also took advantage of SSO this summer, said the program provides food variety for their children while also cutting down on the grocery bill.
This year, her kids will attend school in-person and receive the free meals.
"I'm happy that they can have those options at school, and honestly, that I don't have to pack them in the morning," Ashlee said. "I'm really grateful that the school is willing to support this program."
Parents who want to learn more about the options for free meals should contact their school district for information.