Board, staff stress end to pandemic-era free school meals

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PICKENS COUNTY, Ga. — The Pickens County Board of Education heard continued discussions about the school district’s nutrition services, including supply and cost issues affecting  school meals.

In a June board meeting School Nutrition Director Beth Thompson informed the board that pandemic-era free meals at Pickens County Schools would be coming to an end after Congress failed to extend the benefit for another year. Despite the rising costs of food, Thompson shared that prices would not be raised for students.

Starting this fall, breakfast will cost students at any Pickens school $1.50. Lunch for students will cost $2.15 at elementary schools, $2.40 at middle and junior high schools, and $2.45 at the high school.

Although paid lunches are returning, Thompson emphasized that applications for free or reduced-price meals will be returning. During the board’s July 14 meeting, board member Tucker Green again stressed the importance of making families aware of the ends to automatically free lunches: “We have a lot of concern about people filling out the forms after getting accustomed to not.” To ensure families are made aware of the change, the board, as well as other staff in attendance, discussed strategies to expand access to the application. Fliers informing families at open houses or in local news media, QR code and online access to applications, and paper copies at school were just some options mentioned as the district prepares for applications to open.

Beginning July 18, 2022, families will be able to submit a free or reduced-price meal application, and students who qualify for reduced-price meals will pay only $0.30 for their breakfast and $0.40 for their lunch.

Supply Issues

Increasing costs were not the only issue Chief Operations Officer Stacy Gilleland brought to the board during his Food Services report. He also noted that School Nutrition Services has seen a decrease in food options from 600 to under 250 due to supply issues. “Everybody’s having the same problem,” Gilleland explained, “It’s not Pickens County.” The board took action to ease some supply issues during their June 2022 meeting by voting to approve a contract with Sysco Food Services of Atlanta that intends to expand grocery access to Fannin County, Gilmer County, and Pickens County.

Board Chair Sue Finley asked if federal health standards, like those placed on calorie content and grain types, would be eased in light of shortage and cost issues. Gilleland explained that those regulations were still in place. “All they’re doing is, if we can’t get something because of a supply issue, they’ll give us a little grace on that, but the expectation is to follow the meal pattern,” School Nutrition Director Beth Thompson added.

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