Photo of the primary center cafeteria at lunch time

The pandemic-era federal program that provided free meals for all children at most public schools is no longer available to families, and Perry County students are paying the price. But Perry County School District 32 has a new way to ensure that every student has access to a hot breakfast and lunch during the school day. 

“When the Congressional COVID school meal waiver ended in May, we felt a great deal of concern that some of our students would no longer have access to nutritious school meals,” said Debbie Baer, director of food services at District 32. 

“When school meals were free during the pandemic, we saw a huge increase in the number of students eating in our cafeterias. We served 33,171 more breakfasts and 65,025 more lunches than the previous year.  That significant increase is directly attributable to students being offered meals at no cost. By providing free meals to every student, we eliminated the stigma that sometimes comes with free/reduced meal status. Since this school year began on Aug. 22, however, we have served 7,300 fewer breakfasts in those 34 days than this time last year. That’s over 200 kids per day who are starting school without a hot breakfast,” Baer said. 

Superintendent Andy Comstock said that people are often surprised to learn that Perry County has many families living in poverty. 

“Our district average free- and reduced-meal percentage is 52%,” he explained. “But we know that many people do not like to ask for help and will not fill out the application, so that number doesn’t capture the true picture of how many of our students may be missing out on healthy meals.”

Baer said people wonder why the district doesn’t absorb the cost of feeding every child for free. “We participate in the National School Lunch Program through the USDA,” she said. “That program sets the free and reduced lunch eligibility guidelines. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education sets the free and reduced meal prices, and also gives us the calculation we must use to set the full price for school meals.”

Baer said she’s concerned about the health of students who can’t eat at school and whose families are facing extra challenges due to the increased costs of food at the grocery store. 

“More families are having a difficult time right  now, so we’ve developed the D32 Angel Fund to take one worry away. Anyone can donate money to the Angel Fund, and it will be used to pay for breakfast and/or lunch for any student eating in any of our cafeterias who do not have money in their meal account that day,” she said, “whether it’s 30 cents for a reduced-cost meal or $3.30 for a full-priced meal.”

To donate to the Angel Fund, mail a check with “Angel Fund” in the memo line to Perry County School District 32 Food Services, 326 College St., Perryville, MO 63775. This fund will be available for all students Grades PK-12. 

If families are in need of long-term support, district staff will assist them in filling out the Free/Reduced Application, and families may be referred to the Backpacks For Friday program which provides supplemental food for families in need. Those food packages are delivered monthly by District 32 bus drivers. 

“We do whatever we can to help families who are at risk of food insecurity,” Baer said. “We can’t ask our students to do the hard work of learning when their bellies are empty.”