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Arkansas public schools keeping students fed while federal free meal program ends

The federal funding provided for free student meals during the pandemic will come to an end this school year— here's how public schools are helping keep kids fed.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — During the pandemic, all students in public schools ate for free— but the federal funding that made that possible is about to come to an end. 

There are still some ways that Arkansas families can keep hungry kids fed while going into the new school year. 

Child Nutrition Director for Little Rock School District, Stephanie Walker Hynes, said that parents are calling to ask about free meal applications nonstop.

"We've probably fielded in the month of July already about 1000 calls," she said.

She also said that while only certain students will be able to get free and reduced meals starting in October, she encourages all families in the district to fill out an application to see if they qualify. 

"We need that application filled out right now we have over 75 students and households that have processed those meal applications. And we have almost 21,000 students in the Little Rock School District," Hynes explained.

When meals were free for everyone, she saw a lot of students taking advantage of it. 

"At some of our schools, we have doubled and tripled participation. Because some of those students had never eaten with us because they carried a lunchbox," she said.

If the students qualify for the free and reduced meal program, she said they could get more than just food. 

"Also ACT and SAT fee waivers, summer school fee waivers, internet, boys and girls fee waivers. There's all kinds of benefits tied to the meal application," Hynes said.

She expects to receive more applications this year than in the past because more families are struggling due to inflation. 

Rhonda Sanders with the Arkansas Foodbank said she sees this a lot firsthand. 

"People are overwhelmed with gratitude because they're scraping the bottom of the barrel. You're really trying to piece things together and make ends meet," Sanders said.

She wants parents to know that there are resources available if they're struggling to feed their children during the school year. 

"We operate some school pantries and several of our schools and school districts in the area. We also operate backpack programs that provide food for kids to go home on the weekend with them," she described.

She also emphasized that it takes the whole community to keep students fed. 

"We just need to step up and make the difference," Sanders said.

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