A recent extension to the USDA’s food services waiver will provide Johnson County School District students with free meals from Sept. 14 through the end of 2020.

According to Ricci Sanders, the district’s nutrition services director, the extended waiver comes at an ideal time for many county families.

“There are many local families that are still facing hard times,” Sanders said. “Some parents might be out of a job while others might be working but still struggling to make ends meet. We strongly believe this will be a benefit for all the families in the county, whether they were already on the free-and-reduced lunch program or not.“

Meal prices in the Johnson County School District can quickly add up — especially for  local families feeling the economic crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A family with an elementary student and a middle school student pays $28.75 a week for school lunches. If breakfasts are included, that total jumps to $43.75 a week. The waiver has the potential to save that hypothetical family nearly $600 by the end of the year.

In addition to helping local families, the extended waiver could also be a boon for the district’s meal program, Sanders said.

“During the first six days of school in August, meal program participation was down by 524 lunches and 229 breakfasts compared to the same period in 2019,“ Sanders said. “There are probably several reasons for that. Obviously, our enrollment is down this year. There are also families who probably can’t afford meals this year and others who have decided that it would be safer to bring lunches from home. Our hope is, through the extended waiver, we can get our participation numbers back to where they were last year.”

On Aug. 31, the USDA announced that it would extend through Dec. 31 a free meals program that launched in March and kept many local students fed throughout the spring and summer. According to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the goal of the extension is “to ensure meals are reaching all children — whether they are learning in the classroom or virtually —  so they are fed and ready to learn, even in new and ever-changing learning environments.”

The free meals are open to all Johnson County families enrolled in the district, whether virtually or in person, Sanders said. All virtual students will need to sign up for the free meals by calling Sanders at 620-9206.

On Jan. 1, 2021, all lunch statuses will revert back to what they were as of Sept. 11, 2020, Sanders said. Families with negative lunch balances are encouraged to catch up so that students can begin with a zero balance in January. Eligible families are encouraged to apply for the free-and-reduced lunch program before to Jan. 1.


Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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