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Free summer lunch program in Carroll County, vital for thousands of kids, faces uncertainty as federal support wavers

For the last two years, hundreds of thousands of free meals were given away to Carroll County children during the summer months thanks to expanded federal funding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service program. In 2020, the county received almost $1 million for the summer food program and gave away almost 300,000 meals. In 2021 the numbers were even higher. Carroll schools received $1.55 million and served more than 447,000 meals.

That’s compared to the $30,000 CCPS received for the program during the last “normal” pre-pandemic year, 2019. In that year, the school system was able to serve only 8,778 free meals to children in June, July and August.


Karen Sarno, supervisor of food services at CCPS, and her staff were set to go back to 2019 levels this summer, as the federal waiver program that provided increased funding and allowed meals to be given away and eaten off-site was expected to expire on June 30.

But the Keep Kids Fed Act was passed by Congress late last week and signed by President Joe Biden on June 25. The bill aims to keep the rules for summer meals programs as they were in 2020 and 2021 so that sites can operate in any community with need, rather than just where there’s a high concentration of low-income children, and offer to-go meals. It also provides flexibility for schools to make substitutions for certain types of food without being fined if they run into supply chain problems, according to the Associated Press.


Full details are not yet known, and the timing of the bill passage has left local school systems with little time to plan and lots of confusion.

CCPS has opened only one site for distributing lunches so far this summer, and children must eat the meal on the premises, instead of taking the components home, as they were allowed to do in 2020 and 2021. During those summers, Carroll County families were given 14 meals — seven breakfasts and seven lunches — per child at a time and were able to take them home.

“We did a great service to the community, and I feel that folks were taking advantage of it,” Sarno said.

Since June 21, children have been provided a free lunch on weekdays at the Taneytown Library, 10 Grand Drive, from noon to 1 p.m. That site will remain open through Sept. 2.

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Sarno said she is awaiting official guidance from the USDA and the Maryland State Department of Education before she can finalize plans for any other sites where free food may be offered this summer.

CCPS had planned to open breakfast and lunch sites at Taneytown Elementary and Northwest Middle in Taneytown; William Winchester Elementary, Robert Moton Elementary, Westminster Middle, Carroll Springs School and Winters Mill High in Westminster; and Manchester Valley High in Manchester on July 11 and run them through Aug. 5, for children who attend summer programs there. Serving times and other details are not yet defined, she said.

In Carroll County, one out of five children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals in the public school system, Sarno said. But the number of children who qualify for federal aid is spread out over a large geographic area, making it difficult to serve all the students who need food each summer.

The federal program is set up to help areas that have high pockets of low-income families. In order for an area to qualify for the Summer Food Service program during non-pandemic waiver times, a school had to have at least 50% of students qualify for free or reduced priced meals. The only schools in CCPS that reach that standard are Taneytown Elementary (59.27%), Robert Moton Elementary (58.16%), Gateway School (58.1%), and Crossroads Middle (57.14%), according to October 2021 data from MSDE.


Other schools, such as Elmer Wolfe Elementary and Northwest Middle are around 40%, and so though there are many children who could benefit from a free food service program in the summer, those areas would not qualify for federal funding.

“There’s still kids that live in rural areas that need the help,” Sarno said, but it is more difficult to get the food out to them. Food pantry programs and religious-based groups fill in the gaps, she said.

“I do worry — we all see what’s happening in the grocery stores,” Sarno said. “Those households in the lower and middle incomes [are] who it affects the most. You do worry for those households as [money is] getting tighter and tighter.”