Beginning Tuesday, Hamilton County Schools will provide meals at no charge to all of its students regardless of household income.
The meals will be paid for by a nationwide program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allows students to get breakfast and lunch at no charge through the end of the calendar year. Each student is permitted one breakfast and one lunch per school day.
The agency said this will "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."
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue changed course on Aug. 31 after weeks of saying the agency would resume with charging for meals with the new school year.
The agency has typically funded meals for children through summer school programs without the requirements for low-income qualifications that apply during the school year. Perdue announced that the more flexible approach would be extended through the fall as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The student meals program for Hamilton County Schools costs the federal government more than $16 million a year, and many students already qualified for free and reduced-price meals. Revenue collected from those paying for meals amounted to about $3.3 million, according to the district's budget.
"Each meal is paid for by the USDA," said Tim Hensley, the district's communications director, "so it comes at no cost to the district."
The budget anticipated about $260,000 in revenue from a la carte items, which will still be collected.
Locally, if students have money in their meals account, it can be used to purchase a la carte items or can remain there until the district charges for meals again.
HCS at Home students can still pick up meals each Wednesday from 9 to 10 a.m. at no cost to them.
Hensley told the Times Free Press on Friday that in-class students do not have the option to bring meals home while the district continues with five days of weekly in-person instruction during the pandemic.
"Students taking meals home [previously] was to cover virtual learning days. No virtual learning days are scheduled for the in-class students, so they will not take meals home," Hensley said.
In Hamilton County, there is one complication not faced elsewhere in the nation. Hamilton County students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals based on income are also eligible for free high-speed internet through a new partnership with EPB and others.
When the school district announced the free meals on its social media platforms, some assumed that, if all students now get free lunches, they would get free internet as well.
Hensley said that's not the case.
"This USDA funding is for emergency circumstances such as COVID-19. The qualification for the EdConnect program is based on normal [registration] standards," he said.
Board members react
School board member Rhonda Thurman of Soddy-Daisy told the Times Free Press that she learned about the effort on Thursday. She said as long as it is equal and for everyone, she is all for it.
"There's been certain schools that provided free lunches. Now that it is more equal for everyone, it sounds good to me," she said.
Joe Smith, who represents Hixson, Middle Valley, Big Ridge and Lakeside, said the effort will ensure that no child will go to bed hungry.
"We are living in unprecedented times. There's a lot of hurting people. Even traditional high-income homes are struggling to maintain," Smith said.
Board member Tiffanie Robinson, who represents much of downtown Chattanooga, said she is thrilled about the news and grateful for the funding from the USDA.
Jenny Hill, who represents the North Shore, Red Bank, parts of downtown, St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain, called the news a pleasant surprise.
"COVID-19 had a negative financial impact on families. The free lunches will be a very helpful resource," she said.
Board member Steve Highlander, who represents Harrison and Ooltewah, called the government effort a positive opportunity.
"I think it is great that every child is getting a chance to have adequate nutrition," he said.
Contact Monique Brand at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MoBrandNews.