Thanks to funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, Rockingham County Public Schools’ free meal program will continue at least through December, according to Gerald Lehman, director of school nutrition for the division.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in mid-March, area school divisions scrambled to figure out how to get much-needed meals to families while they were stuck at home.
The meal pickup program has changed a few times since March and has been adjusted once again now that some students are back in the classroom as of a week ago.
Students who are in the classroom — prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students, as well as some vulnerable students at the higher levels — get breakfast and lunch on the four days they are there. On Tuesdays, they take home a meal bag for Wednesday’s meals.
The majority of students who are learning virtually can pick up meals on Mondays and Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m.
Any student younger than 18 is qualified to receive meals, Lehman said. They are distributed at all 23 schools, not counting Massanutten Technical Center and Rockingham Academy.
Monday’s meal bag contains three breakfasts and three lunches, and Thursday’s bag contains four breakfasts and four lunches.
The need for meals dropped off slightly as the summer wore on — they peaked in April with a high of 1,500 meal bags being picked up on a single day, and dropped to 700 in July. However, that need is back up. On Monday, more than 1,500 bags were distributed, the highest it’s been since the pandemic hit.
“We expect that number to continue to go up,” Lehman said. “We’re just getting started.”
Although it’s hard to say exactly why the need has once again risen, Lehman surmised it has to do with school starting again and parents getting back into “school mode.”
The plan is to continue offering meal bags twice a week through December. If participation drops off significantly at one of the schools, the division might consider consolidating with another, but that hasn’t happened yet.
If Rockingham County decides to integrate more students into the classroom, Lehman anticipates that participation in the pickup program will go down as students would be getting their meals in the classroom.
“It’s our desire to do three things with these meals: No. 1, maintain high quality; No. 2, meeting students’ preferences; and No. 3 is safety,” Lehman said.