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Arkansas school leaders urge free lunch extension for students

During the pandemic, students ate breakfast and lunch free of charge throughout the state, providing many students with a reliable meal. But, that could change now.

BAUXITE, Ark. — It's lunchtime at Bauxite School District, but superintendent Matt Donaghy isn't focused on that.

That concern is centered in the cafeteria – more specifically, the meals.

"It's very important to the Bauxite School District to make sure that our students are fed with nutritious meals. It's definitely concerning, and it's at the forefront of all school district leaders minds," Donaghy said. 

During the pandemic, students ate breakfast and lunch free of charge at districts across the state. This allowed students, who originally wouldn't know where their next meal would come from, an opportunity to have a reliable meal.

"We realized that so many students are not able to eat a nutritious meal, or a meal period, unless it comes from the school district," Donaghy said.

That program is set to end at the end of June and without it, Donaghy said many students may not have a meal outside of the ones provided at school.

And that concern isn't something that's just at Bauxite-- it's statewide.

"It's dire, not only to our families and to our kids that are not only in our schools, but also in our community feeding programs," Jon Laffoon said.

Laffoon is the superintendent of the Farmington School District. He also serves as the vice-president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association.

In those roles, Laffoon is working on spearheading the push for an extension of those waivers.

"I'll put it this way. If this ends, July one where we're able to feed kids, we're going to have kids fall off a hunger cliff," Laffoon said.

That issue is much bigger than just feeding kids for free. 

Inflation is causing schools to pay more for food – if the waivers are gone, schools may be forced to charge more for meals.

"Then that's going to drive up the food costs in our schools and the families that already are having trouble accessing food. We're going to have to face that issue," Laffoon said.

This is why Laffoon said this needs to be extended, whether you're in Bauxite or Farmington, Little Rock or Jonesboro.

"I think that's the big picture here to me, we're feeding more kids because it's accessible to them." Laffoon said. "So we've got, right now, we need to continue to support our families and our communities and make sure we're feeding kids."

It's a collective effort as both Donaghy and Laffoon said they've reached out to state lawmakers to help extend the program.

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