Starting Monday, Sept. 21, every student in Dubuque Community Schools can receive breakfasts and lunches at no charge.

Officials notified families on Wednesday that the district had been approved to offer free meals to students — and to children in the wider community — after federal officials extended a waiver that gives meal programs flexibility to feed children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” said Joann Franck, food and nutrition manager for the district. “The waivers will ensure all children will have access to healthy meals.”

The Dubuque district joins a rapidly growing list of local schools offering free meals to students this fall. School nutrition officials say they hope the move helps them reach more children as families navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we see more, as they come through our pickup sites, more younger families that are just struggling,” Franck said. “It’s just a time of struggle, and we never know who is struggling, so I think it’s a great way for making it available for everybody.”

Starting Monday, students attending classes in the Dubuque district can access free meals at school. Students who are learning remotely through the district’s online or hybrid models can pick up meals at the district’s grab-and-go sites, which will also be open to all youth ages 18 and under.

District officials applied to offer the free meals after U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced they would extend COVID-19-related waivers allowing summer meal program operators to offer no-cost meals through the end of 2020 or until funding runs out.

Franck said a family paying full price for both breakfasts and lunches from the district could end up saving $250 per student if the waiver lasts to the end of the year.

She said she hopes that with free meals available to students, more families will participate in the district’s meal program.

“I think we will see a bump,” Franck said. “In particular, families that usually don’t participate due to the expense of it may decide to have their child participate in the meals.”

Local school districts jumped at the chance to offer students free meals this fall. Officials from 37 districts and nonpublic schools that responded to an inquiry from the Telegraph Herald all said they had been approved, were applying or planned to apply to participate.

“Not knowing what services people are going to need going forward, this program really allows us the flexibility and the ability to react quickly and help fill the gaps where there is a need,” said Marie Miller, director of food and nutrition for Holy Family Catholic Schools.

Holy Family started serving free meals to all kindergarten through 12th grade students, and some early childhood students, on Monday, Sept. 14. The system also is hosting a site at Wahlert Catholic High School to provide grab-and-go meals to any child 18 and under.

“I feel our participation was really good from the beginning of the year, but there are some families that are taking advantage of the program since it is free for everyone,” Miller said.

Kyle Gansen, director of food and nutrition services in the Western Dubuque Community School District, said the move to free meals is already increasing participation.

This week, the district is sending home about 430 meals with students to eat on Friday when they are not in school, double what it was before the district started offering free meals this week. More families learning entirely virtually also are taking advantage of the district’s meal pickup option.

“It addresses a big need,” Gansen said. “A lot of our families have to come up with different ideas for child care on Fridays, and that’s just one less burden that they have to worry about.”

Sherry Kaiser, director of food and nutrition for the East Dubuque, Ill., school district, said staff have been making sure to let students know they can access free meals and making it as easy as possible for them to eat.

“I think we’re doing well, but we can always improve,” she said. “We just need to keep reaching out to families and offer as much as we can and get it to the kids that need it.”