NORTH ADAMS — Federal funding that provides free lunches and breakfasts at Pittsfield and North Adams schools is secure — for now.
But public schools in North Adams and Pittsfield could be on the hook for the cost of the thousands of free meals they provide to students if the federal government shutdown continues past March.
The United States Department of Agriculture updated districts on the status of its child nutrition programs on Tuesday, saying in a statement that funding was already covered for January and this week "we will provide an additional two months' worth of funding, consistent with the standard practice of funding these programs on a quarterly basis."
The communication provides local officials with some additional breathing room but, with no end to the partial federal government shutdown in sight, they've already begun considering next steps.
"What we have to hope for is the recognition that these decisions have real impacts on real residents of all of our communities — our most vulnerable, in a lot of cases," North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard told the North Adams School Committee at a regular meeting Tuesday night.
An extended shutdown could force local officials to consider how the costs of the free meals can be absorbed until the shutdown ends.
"Hopefully this [shutdown] will be resolved," said Kristen Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance at Pittsfield Public Schools.
The funding situation has evolved since the shutdown began last month. In a release issued Dec. 28, the USDA stated that its child nutrition programs — through which Pittsfield and North Adams are reimbursed for providing free breakfasts and lunches to students — would be funded through February.
On Tuesday, USDA officials told reporters that the child nutrition programs are now guaranteed to be funded through March — giving Berkshire officials a little more time to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
"It's all the same, it's just where the decision point is depends on how long the funding is guaranteed for," Bernard said.
The program, operated under the umbrella of the Department of Agriculture, provides reimbursement to school districts based economic factors of their student population.
Through the Community Eligibility Provision, North Adams offers a free breakfast and lunch to all of its students at every school building. It also offers dinner to at-risk youth under the age of 18 years old through an additional program housed at Brayton Elementary School.
"I would imagine that we could sustain programs and services through April if reimbursements and deliveries continue through March," said North Adams Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Malkas.
Pittsfield offers free lunches to elementary and middle school students, but not at the high school level.
As of November, Pittsfield served an average of 3,681 free lunches and 1,752 free breakfasts every day.
Districts are required to keep an operating cost balance of at least six weeks on hand, and Behnke said Pittsfield usually is above that minimum. However, like North Adams, it does not have an unending reserve to draw on.
Even without the federal shutdown, North Adams Food Services Director Corbett Nicholas — in a communication relayed to the School Committee on Tuesday — noted that the district regularly is delayed in receiving reimbursement.
The North Adams City Council has already gotten involved.
City Councilor Jason LaForest raised the issue at Tuesday's City Council meeting, expressing concern in a letter that funding for the free meals could dry up due to the shutdown.
"It is well documented that students who benefit from free and reduced lunch programs are happier, healthier and more productive students. In the absence of this program, many families simply would not be able to provide these meal," LaForest wrote.
Concerned that it could be asked to step in with emergency funding if the shutdown continues, the City Council agreed to discuss the issue further at a committee meeting.
Adam Shanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.