Free lunch

Students at Wilson Elementary enjoy their pizza during lunchtime Tuesday. The Ottumwa School District announced Tuesday that all students are eligible for free lunch and breakfast through Dec. 31, subject to federal funding. The program is open to all Ottumwa children age 18 and under.

OTTUMWA — Free lunch and breakfast have arrived for all students — and children — in Ottumwa.

The district implemented the new program Tuesday through United States Department of Agriculture, which funds the program.

“It’s actually a national waiver. Districts have the option of opting into it, and I made the decision to opt into it today,” Yvonne Johnson, director of Ottumwa Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services, said Tuesday.

She said she received word Friday that the program, an extension of the summer food service program the district participated in, was expanding. It had to trickle down from the national level to the state level, which then released the details to the districts.

“I had been researching it and looking at it anyway because it was of high interest to me,” Johnson said. Once she got word of the expansion Friday, “I jumped on it.”

She put a call in to Superintendent Mike McGrory to tell him she wanted to participate in the program, and he told her to go for it, she said.

“We had already participated in the summer feeding program, so the implementation of it was very smooth,” Johnson said.

She said they simply had to fill out a form of what they were doing and when they were planning on implementing the program “and the state just kind of put us through.”

And the program isn’t just intended to feed students at the schools.

“It’s available to anybody that’s in Ottumwa,” Johnson said. “If there’s somebody that needs that service, it’s available to them if they’re in Ottumwa.”

A release from the district says that the program provides the opportunity for free meals to all Ottumwa-area children ages 18 and under. Those not in school to receive food in the cafeteria can visit the weekly pickup from 10-11 a.m. Fridays on the Fourth Street side of Ottumwa High School to pick up meals for the following week.

That’s also a system Johnson said was also in place for the Bulldog Virtual Learning students.

“We have already implemented at pickup drive-thru service for those students, so those students not in school would be able to utilize that pickup service,” she said.

Students attending school in person will continue to receive their meals in the cafeteria.

As of right now, the program is expected to run through the end of 2020.

“It’s based on funding. They’re anticipating the funding stream will get districts through Dec. 31,” Johnson said.

The district’s release reads, “Ottumwa Schools has chosen to provide meals under this waiver through December 31 subject to federal funding.”

Johnson said the district is anticipating the USDA funding to last to the end of the calendar year “but there’s no guarantee. We’re hoping it does. The longer the better.”

Nutrition guidelines for the program vary slightly from the school lunch program guidelines, but Johnson said students won’t notice much of a change in their menus.

“The summer food service program itself has different nutrition guidelines that are a little less. We’re planning on keeping our school lunch guidelines,” she said.

For example, the USDA program states “fruit or vegetable” whereas the school lunch program guidelines call for “fruit and vegetable.”

“We’ll try to keep it as close to norm and as close to the school lunch guidelines we already have,” Johnson said. However, the USDA guidelines will allow for some flexibility if vendors are not able to provide certain items.

While the program provides free meals to all students in the district, applications for free- and reduced-lunch program will continue to be collected by the district in order to provide a smooth transition for when the program runs out.

Those who have traditionally paid for student meals have two options for the money in students’ accounts.

“If parents have balances on their students’ accounts, they can leave it there and save it for when [the program] runs out or they can request a refund, whatever is most convenient for them,” Johnson said.

Refund request should be made through the child’s school, and it will be forwarded on to Johnson and her department.

However, she’s simply excited to have another way to make sure the children of Ottumwa are provided nutritious food.

“There’s enough stress with COVID and everything that we’re glad parents don’t have to worry about [feeding their children],” Johnson said, or where the next meal might come from. “They’ll know they’ll be able to get a good and nutritious meal. We’re excited about that.

“I’m happy that they took a look at it. We’re always excited to be able to feed kids. We’re certainly thrilled they’ve expanded this program. We’re happy to be able to do it and glad it worked out for us. These are interesting times.”

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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