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story.lead_photo.caption Patricia Dohmen delivers items at Thorpe Gordon Elementary School's food pickup for students. She and lunchroom manager Dolores Urban prepared sandwiches, vegetables, fruits and more for students in the Jefferson City School District. Buddy Packs were sent home for the weekend. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently extended a waiver that allows qualifying schools, including four in Mid-Missouri, to provide free meals to children.

The federal waiver from the USDA that allowed the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option to operate amid the COVID-19 pandemic was set to expire Aug. 31. The USDA extended this waiver through Dec. 31 last month based upon available funding at the time, and it recently extended it again through June 30, 2021.

The waiver allows any child 18 or younger to continue receiving free meals from schools and community sites operating under the Summer Food Service Program or Seamless Summer Option.

Qualifying schools may offer up to two meals (breakfast and lunch or breakfast and dinner) or one meal and one snack per child per day for free. Although school meals are free to students, a la carte items, such as bottled water and second entrees, are not.

The USDA also extended waivers that permit meals to be served outside of the typically required group settings and meal times, waive meal pattern requirements as necessary, and allow parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children.

The Jefferson City School District, Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene, Osage County R-2 School District in Linn and Osage County R-1 School District in Chamois qualify for this waiver and will continue offering free breakfast and lunch to all students through the end of the school year.

If your child is younger than 18 and lives in the Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene, Osage County R-2 School District in Linn or Osage County R-1 School District in Chamois but does not attend school in these districts, you may request to pick up free meals by calling the school offices.

The Jefferson City School District is providing meals only to students who attend school in the district because it is considered a "close enrolled" site under the USDA waiver, meaning the district can feed only students enrolled in the district, JC Schools Nutrition Services Director Dana Doerhoff said. The district is considered an "open site" by the Summer Food Service during the summer months.

The Jefferson City district is not providing meals to students who are enrolled in virtual learning.

"The nutrition services teams in our school kitchens are working incredibly hard to prepare and provide meals to students in the classroom, as outlined in our COVID-19 re-entry plan," Doerhoff said. "This requires extra time and preparation compared to serving meals in the cafeteria. We currently do not have the additional manpower it would require to complete the added tasks related to COVID and to provide meals for the 1,500 students in virtual."

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Schools that have more than 50 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals may participate in the summer meal programs.

Schools with less than 50 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals may be able to participate if they are "area eligible," which means the school is located within the attendance area of a school where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals.

For example, some schools in the Jefferson City School District, such as North Elementary, have less than 50 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. Those schools, however, are located within the attendance area of another school that does qualify, such as Lewis and Clark Middle School.

About 58 percent of students in the Jefferson City School District qualified for free or reduced-price meals during the 2019-20 school year, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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