COVID-19 has thrown many aspects of regular life into disarray, but one positive result of the virus was the availability of free meals in schools across Connecticut. As of September 11, Region 16 was able to distribute free meals to all students during the school year.
“In essence, the state is subsidizing the food program this year because they’re worried that kids are going to go hungry,” said Patricia Iraci, Region 16 Food Service Director.
Region 16 Food Service is part of a program called the National School Lunch Program, which allows Region 16 to be reimbursed by the state of Connecticut for every lunch they distribute as long as they follow regulations on nutrition. Normally, Region 16 is reimbursed for every meal they distribute in all three price categories: free, reduced, and full price. For free lunch, schools are reimbursed at full price; for reduced price lunches they are reimbursed about forty cents; and on full price lunches schools are reimbursed a few pennies.
“It’s a very regulated program,” said Iraci. “They’re just looking to make sure everyone is healthy; that the fats aren’t saturated and that the sodium is low enough.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit America and schools started closing down around March, Region 16 automatically went into “seamless summer mode.” Seamless Summer Options (SSO) is a waiver that allows schools to give out free meals as they do in the summertime. Schools keep track of what they give out and are reimbursed for the full price of the lunch in return.
“When COVID-19 hit and everything closed, we automatically went into Seamless Summer mode because it allowed us not to ring at the register,” Iraci said. “We don’t need your pin number; we just keep a list of everyone that comes through. The state reimburses us that free dollar amount for every meal that we serve.”
Region 16 Food Service continued to serve meals throughout quarantine and the summer. According to Iraci, not much has changed within the actual operations of the cafeterias, except that everything is plastic wrapped, no longer served buffet style, and food is delivered in hinged, closed containers or wrapped.
When the Food Service first started distributing meals, the food was distributed from Long River in Prospect and Woodland in Beacon Falls. Unfortunately, it seemed Woodland’s location was too remote to get much turnout.
“I got on Facebook and listened to what everyone was saying and there were a lot more students in walking distance from Laurel Ledge,” Iraci recalls. “We switched over to Laurel Ledge and the response was absolutely mindblowing! When we finished the program, we were doing 6,000 meals a week.”
Currently, the SSO program ends on December 31. If the program gets renewed, then Region 16 will have to do another application for a waiver, but as for the SSO program itself, there is only a very slim chance that the program will end.
“There’s a good possibility that this program will run until the end of June,” Iraci said. “[The state] could send out an email tomorrow and say, ‘We’re out of money but we’re looking for other funds,’ but I can’t imagine that they would do that, that they would start a program like this and then stop it early, but it is always a possibility if the state runs out of money.”
With the community being fed, there are hardly any negatives to this situation. Free meals is one of the bright spots in the tumultuous time of COVID-19 and Iraci is still trying to make it better for everyone.
“If a child is doing distance learning, they can pick up meals and bring them home twice a week,” Iraci said. “We’re always looking at [the program] and saying, ‘How can we make this better?’ ‘How can we reach more people?’ But so far, it’s been going great.”