Federal school lunch program safe through February, official says

Nearly 70 percent of Florida school children can receive free or reduced-price meals.
Tina Russell, a cafeteria manager with Pinellas County Schools, helps 2015 summer campers, from left, Tarvis Frazier, 7, Tristan Lovelady, 7, and Kristijan Cajic, 6, with their lunches. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Tina Russell, a cafeteria manager with Pinellas County Schools, helps 2015 summer campers, from left, Tarvis Frazier, 7, Tristan Lovelady, 7, and Kristijan Cajic, 6, with their lunches. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published January 14
Updated January 14

Amid the nation’s longest federal government shutdown, students who rely on subsidized school lunches don’t have to worry just yet.

“We have been guaranteed we’re going to get federal reimbursement, we’re going to be able to continue the program until the end of February,” said Sylvia Leeb, Pasco County school district food services program manager. “It’s business as usual.”

Once that deadline passes, though, Leeb said the USDA has not told schools what to expect next.

“It’s completely uncertain,” she said. “We truly have no idea how this is all going to play out.”

Schools can accept applications for free and reduced-price meals from low-income students throughout the year. That’s why the participation rates for the program, begun in 1946, change on an almost daily basis.

In 2017-18, more than 1.3 million Florida public school students were counted as eligible for the meals.

Children of federal employees who aren’t being paid currently could bolster the numbers.

Leeb, whose district has 54.5 percent of students in the program, said officials are seeking information about what might happen if the stalemate isn’t broken. It could result in the children having to pay for their own meals, for instance, or some other agency filling the void.

“We have no idea what it means,” she said.

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