Marfa and Presidio schools extend free meals program for anyone under 18

FAR WEST TEXAS – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded its meals programs in public schools through June 2022, offering free meals to anyone under the age of 18, regardless of income or enrollment status. While Marfa and Presidio schools are taking full advantage of the assistance program, neighboring Fort Davis ISD has said it will continue to pass on government assistance food programs, due to the financial burdens that come along with them.

Since the pandemic started, Marfa schools have been using the program first to offer free breakfast and lunch to all of its enrolled students, and then, after a policy change in November, to anyone in the community under the age of 18, regardless of their enrollment with the school.

Cynthia Hernandez, the school’s child nutrition director, said they have been keeping on top of any free programs with the hopes of continuing to offer resources in the community. Even before the pandemic, Marfa ISD and Presidio ISD schools qualified under the Community Eligibility Provision program to offer meals for free to all students. 

“We met a certain percentage target that allowed our school to operate free meals for everybody regardless of income status,” Hernandez explained. That program reimbursed the schools at about 84%. 

“In Presidio, all of our kids get free and reduced lunches, we don’t qualify by income,” said Dr. Laura Portillo, the federal programs and curriculum director at Presidio ISD. “The whole entire district qualifies.”

Even though both schools were already providing free lunch, the USDA’s continuation of its pandemic-era allowances will help schools by offering “higher-than-normal meal reimbursements” the USDA said, putting more money into the cafeteria programs’ pockets.

In Fort Davis ISD, Superintendent Graydon Hicks said the financials, even with federal reimbursements, just don’t add up. The school has never had a cafeteria, and although it offers free cold breakfast every morning, few students take advantage of it. 

When auditing requirements became more complicated several years ago, Hicks said the district stopped taking state or federal assistance for meal programs all together.

“When we stopped taking the money, we were only getting $2,500 dollars and the auditing requirements were increased very dramatically from every three years to two years to every year and involved a very extensive audit – we’re talking 80 to 100 pages,” Hicks explained. “It just wasn’t worth it.” Instead, the school pays for the cold breakfast out of its regular budget, and supplements students meals with snacks provided by teachers and principals.

“We keep a pretty close track of our kids, and if we believe that kids are maybe hungry, then we make sure we’ve got something for them,” Hicks said.

Schools in Marfa and Presidio are offering their free meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO), a program normally only available in the summer. 

“This option maintains the nutrition standards of the standard school meal programs – including a strong emphasis on providing fruits and vegetables, fluid milk, whole grains, and sensible calorie levels, while allowing schools to serve free meals to all children,” the USDA wrote in its announcement last week, stating it would continue the program through June 2022. 

The program expansion announcement also addressed another pandemic-related challenge cafeterias have faced: managing the growing costs related to pandemic-era operational and supply-chain challenges.

Hernandez said costs have indeed risen during the pandemic. From a price hike on ketchup to an increased need to buy pre-packaged foods, the cafeteria expenses have grown. In Presidio, Dr. Portillo said styrofoam and plastic containers are “very expensive,” and since the school is still offering grab-and-go meals for students who are remote, they have to pay for more packaging.

 Some of those costs have been counterbalanced by a decrease in students utilizing the free meals program in Presidio though. “We lost a lot of kids during COVID, who went virtual or they withdrew, because they didn’t want to come in person,” Portillo explained. “We did lose a lot of kids, like in the elementary we lost about 100 kids.” Because of that drop in enrollment, fewer students are using the program, which reduces the number of reimbursements the school cafeteria gets from the USDA.

“The more students we can provide a meal to – it’s good for the district in terms of revenue,” Hernandez said. “I’m not saying the school makes money, but we pretty much break even,” she said about the summer meals program.

“It’s ever changing,” Hernandez said of the assistance programs that are available for public schools. “We’re going with the changes, making sure things are compliant, so we can keep providing free meals to our kiddos.”