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Carter County Schools get waivers to deliver school lunches to student homes

Contributed • Mar 17, 2020 at 5:16 PM

ELIZABETHTON — It took a lot of negotiation and coordination with local, state, and federal officials, but the Carter County School System has received a waiver that will loosen federal regulations on the system’s food service program and make it easier for schools to provide meals to children while the system is closed because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The school lunch programs operate under the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those regulations dictate a variety of things about how food the programs run, including a requirement that the meals must be provided to students on site. When the Carter County system announced it was closing as a precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the department began putting plans in place to serve meals to designated schools across the community.

Director of Schools Kevin Ward said he and other system employees and members of the Board of Education worried there would be children in the community who would not be able to make it to one of the designated sites to pick up food. The  system hoped to put a plan in place to deliver meals, but the federal regulations prevented them from implementing such a plan.

“With the help of (Carter County) Mayor Rusty Barnett, Sen. Rusty Crowe, Congressman Phil Roe, and others they have been able to cut through the red tape for us,” Ward said Tuesday. “This is allowing us to take food outside the schools.”

Ward said he had been working with Barnett to see what could be done to help loosen the regulations regarding food delivery and together they spoke with several state and federal officials to try to get a waiver in place. On Tuesday morning, Ward said the system received word the waiver had been received.

“The USDA is allowing us to use the Seamless Summer Option, SSO, similar to our summer feeding program,” Lindsey Feathers, director of the school system’s food service program, said. “They are waiving the requirement that the students eat on site.”

After receiving the notification Tuesday, Ward said he and Feathers began coordinating with Wayne Sams, the system’s transportation director, to work on logistics and identify additional sites for food delivery.

“This is something that will take us a couple of days to put together,” Ward said.

Feathers agreed that it will take a few days to get plans in place and finalized. While the on-site feeding restriction has been lifted, Feathers said the food service program still has other regulations it must follow.

In the meantime, the system will be offering on-site drive-through meal pickup beginning Wednesday, March 18, and running through March 31. Meals will be available for any child between the ages of 0-18 from noon until 1 p.m., Monday through Friday at the following schools: Cloudland Elementary, Hampton High School, Hunter Elementary, Happy Valley Elementary, and Little Milligan Elementary.

Ward said he hopes to announce the plans for the off-site food deliveries by the end of the week and begin delivering food on Monday.

“One of the most important pieces for us during this shutdown is to make sure we have food available for our students,” Ward said. “The deliveries will be more convenient, and we will be able to put more food in the hands of more students.”

Ward said he and his staff are thankful for the assistance they received from local, state, and federal officials in “cutting through the red tape” so they could get a plan in place to get meals to the students.

“Everyone worked together to get this done for the kids,” Barnett said. “I worried that we might have children in our community going hungry while school was out so I just wanted to do what I could to help.”

Barnett said he contacted Crowe and Roe to get them involved in helping the school system out.

“I am so very proud that Mayor Barnett and Kevin were working so closely on this and got us involved so quickly so we could get this taken care of for the kids,” Crowe said. “My roots are in Carter County and I want to make sure the people there are taken care of.”

Ward said once plans are finalized for meal delivery the school system will make an announcement on its website, through social media, and through the One Call system used to notify parents of school closures.

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