The end of the universal free school meals program is the next stress for many parents

However, most of those East Hampton parents will have to pack food for their kids or spend hundreds of dollars on the cafeteria this school year once a short, state-funded extension of the expanded program expires. Almost all new applicants don’t qualify for the regular federal program because their incomes are too high, said Jen Bove, director of food and nutrition services for the district, which has 1,900 students.

“If they apply, they need it,” Bove said, noting that the program doesn’t account for debts families might have incurred if they had temporarily lost their jobs during the pandemic. “At a time when free meals have never been more needed in my adulthood, we’re taking them away.”

The problem is compounded by the fact that some school districts have had to raise their breakfast and lunch rates this year due to soaring food prices, supply chain shortages and rising costs. labor costs.

“Now that children are returning to school and free meals will no longer be available, this is going to put enormous financial pressure on families who are already under pressure,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the Food Research & Center. of action. “You’re going to have kids coming to class hungry.”

Some federal waivers continue, some don’t

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, Congress approved a series of waivers that gave districts more flexibility to continue serving meals when schools were closed and children were learning to eat. distance. In addition to being able to provide take-out meals to students, schools were given higher federal reimbursement rates and more latitude in what foods they could serve in the event of a supply chain disruption.

Waivers continued even as schools reopened in the past two years, allowing them to offer take-out meals to children who were in quarantine or studying virtually or serve meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, around 30 million students were receiving free school meals, compared to around 20 million children who qualified based on their household income before the pandemic.

The fact that everyone can eat for free in the cafeteria also minimized the stigma felt by some children who received free school meals, increasing the likelihood that they would actually eat breakfast and lunch, officials said. school nutrition.

However, Congress only extended some of the flexibilities for the 2022-23 academic year. The USDA continues to waive penalties for schools that cannot always meet federal nutrition requirements because they cannot order or receive food that meets guidelines.

Districts are also receiving additional funds to offset higher food and labor costs, but not as much as they had been reimbursed since the pandemic began.

But one of the biggest changes is that low-income families have to apply for free or reduced-price meals again. While many are automatically certified if they receive food stamps, and in some states Medicaid, others still need to fill out forms to qualify.

A family of three must have an annual gross income below approximately $30,000 to qualify for free meals and approximately $42,600 for reduced-price meals during that school year.

Inform parents

School districts are trying to get the word out to parents to apply. Most have put applications on their online portals, while many also have printed forms that they send home or parents can pick up.

This year, many school districts are making more use of social media to educate parents, posting information on Facebook pages and using other social media applications, said Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association.

Families who have qualified in recent years have the first 30 business days of the school year to renew their eligibility. If they don’t, their children will no longer be able to receive free or reduced-price meals.

At the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona, just over 9,000 students have submitted applications that qualify for free or reduced-price meals so far this year, said Lindsay Aguilar, director of the district’s food services department. . But more than 1,000 children who had already qualified will see their eligibility expire on September 16 if they do not reapply. (Nearly two-thirds of schools in Tucson routinely serve free lunches to all students due to the schools’ high poverty rate.)

Parents are receiving automated emails, texts and phone calls encouraging them to apply, Aguilar said.

School districts, like those in Oakland County in Michigan, are using social media more to make sure families know they should apply for free and reduced-price meals.

In general, districts across the country are seeing more requests than before the pandemic, said Adkins, who is also a child nutrition consultant for the Oakland Schools Middle School District in Michigan. But it’s too early to tell how many eligible families might fall through the cracks.

“Every household has competing priorities for their finances, so we just don’t want school meals to be unavailable or inaccessible,” she said.

Pressure on families

The expiry of the waivers comes at a time when high inflation is weighing on family budgets. Grocery prices jumped 13.1% in the 12 months to July, the largest annual increase since the year ending March 1979, the Bureau’s most recent data shows. of Labor Statistics.

For Dawn Overmyer, spending $80 a month on school lunch for her 5-year-old grandson could force her to fall behind on other bills. Overmyer and her husband, who both work in a supermarket distribution warehouse, have custody of the boy and his younger brother, who “love to eat”, she said.

The couple from Montpelier, Indiana were very disappointed to learn that they were earning too much $2,000 a year to allow their grandson to get free or reduced-price meals at school. They already live paycheck to paycheck, and Overmyer had to tapping into his 401(k) retirement account to make ends meet.

“Me and my husband were building our future,” Overmyer, 54, said. having to worry about paying the rent when I retire. »

Breakfast and lunch are still free for kindergarten and other students at this time, but the school told Overmyer it would let them know when they have to start paying. She plans to make breakfast for her grandson, but sending him to school with lunch could end up costing even more money each week since grocery prices have skyrocketed.

If children don’t participate in the free breakfast and lunch program, bring food from home, and don’t have funds in their school lunch account, they can still eat in the cafeteria, said Adkins. But they are billed, and families will have to pay the balance later.

About 75% of districts had unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year, according to the latest information available from the School Nutrition Association. The median amount was $3,400, up from $2,000 three years earlier.

Some states are using their own funds to continue providing free school meals, FitzSimons said. In California and Maine, students will be able to eat breakfast and lunch for free on an ongoing basis, while other states, including Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, are making them free for this school year.

Connecticut provided $30 million to expand the free program. Its duration in East Hampton depends on the number of students participating in school lunches this year, but Bove expects the money to run out around December.

Higher meal costs

Some school districts have had to raise the price of their meals due to higher food, supply and labor costs.

In East Hampton, the price of lunch will increase by 50 cents, so students will pay between $3.50 and $4 for hot meals depending on their level. Breakfast will also be more expensive.

Only six of Oakland County’s 28 school districts raised prices, Adkins said, with an average increase of 15 to 25 cents.

Six of Michigan's 28 Oakland County school districts have raised the price of their lunches.

Breakfast at Tucson schools now costs 25 cents more and lunch 20 cents more. Those in kindergarten through fifth grade pay $1.50 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch, while older students pay $1.75 for breakfast and $3 for lunch.

Even though federal reimbursements continued at the same high level as last year, Tucson should have raised the price of its meals, Aguilar said. Its costs have more than doubled for some items.

A 6-ounce container used daily for side vegetables costs 135% more than last school year, while salad containers are up 116%. The price of sliced ​​cheddar cheese increased by 57% and that of whole grain hamburger buns by 50%. Chicken fajitas are 105% more expensive.

Additionally, the district now pays a minimum wage of $15 per hour, down from $13.50 per hour. This has helped reduce the share of vacancies among school nutrition staff from 25% last year to a more normal 15%, Aguilar said.

Although Aguilar has received requests from parents about the higher fees, she still considers school meals a good deal overall.

“If you’re thinking lunch or breakfast, I think our prices are certainly still very reasonable compared to what families see in restaurants or fast food places,” she said. “But you know a quarter or 20 cents can definitely add up.”

Julio V. Miller