Officials, school system work to make meals available for students during school closure

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, March 18, 2020

After working with local, state, and federal officials, the Carter County School System was able to receive a waiver which will loosen federal regulations on the system’s food service program and make it easier for the schools to provide meals to children while closed due to coronavirus.

School food programs operate under regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that dictate a variety of things about how the programs run, including a requirement that the meals be provided to the students on-site. When the Carter County School System announced it was closing as a precaution to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, they began putting plans in place to serve meals to designated schools across the community.

However, Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward said he, school system employees, and members of the Board of Education all worried that 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 school system hoped to put a plan in place to deliver meals in the community, but the federal regulations prevented them from implementing such a plan.

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“With the help of 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 on 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 the delivery of food and together they spoke with several state and federal officials to try to get the waiver in place. On Tuesday morning, Ward said the school 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,” said Lindsey Feathers, director of the school system’s food service program. “They are waiving the requirement that the students eat on-site.”

After receiving the notification on 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 foodservice program still has other regulations it must follow.

In the meantime, the school system will be offering on-site drive-through meal pick up beginning today and running through March 31. Meals will be available for any child between the ages of 0 and 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 shut down 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,” said Carter County Mayor Rusty Barnett. “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 Tennessee Sen. Rusty Crowe and U.S. Representative Phil Roe to get them involved in helping the school 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 their website, through social media, and through the One Call system they use to notify parents of school closures.