Free school meals offer ends as families struggle pandemic program
Like other parents, April Vazquez, a school nutritionist in Sioux Falls, SD, is clipping coupons, buying in bulk and skipping take-out and restaurant meals. Still, a hot lunch in the school cafeteria for her three kids is now a treat she has to plan carefully within her budget.
The end of an exemption that guaranteed free school meals for nearly 30 million students across the United States during the pandemic means families like Ms. Vazquez’s who earn more than the income limit can no longer allow children to eat at no cost. are not eligible for the federal program.
As pandemic-era aid programs expire and inflation hits record highs, Ms. Vazquez is hardly alone. The number of students receiving free lunches dropped by nearly a third to about 18.6 million in October, the latest month with available data. In comparison, about 20.3 million students ate free food in October 2019, before the pandemic. That decline can be attributed to several factors, such as being on the threshold of eligibility, lack of awareness that the program was over by the start of the school year and fewer schools participating in the program overall.
“It’s making things very difficult at the most difficult moment that I think American families have seen in a generation,” said Kerry Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union Network.
For Ms. Vazquez, returning to a reality where she must pay full price for school meals — about $3 or $4 for each child — has been trying, and most days, her children bring packed lunches. (Bugs, cream cheese and apples are typical; grapes and strawberries are rare because they are so expensive.)
“It’s painful to know that my children are not going to be free or less,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Vazquez worked part-time as a special education aide and her children vacillated between qualifying for free or reduced-price meals from year to year. But when she took a full-time job as a nutritionist in August 2021, her salary was enough to push her family above the income threshold for either benefit: about $42,000 a year for free food for a family of five. and $60,000 for low-cost food.
“It was really a concern when I applied for this position, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, am I going to be disqualified?” she said, adding that she ultimately acted with a view to long-term financial stability.
Even though some parents have seen their wages increase and the norm of free and reduced-price meals expand, those boons have done nothing to cushion the impact of rising food costs.
From the 2019-20 school year to this school year, income eligibility for free and reduced-price meals has increased by approximately 7.8 percent. The average hourly wage increase increased by 15.1 percent during the same period. However, consumer prices increased by 15.4 percent, and food prices by 20.2 percent, which outpaced wage growth.
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In the Sioux Falls School District — where Ms. Vazquez works and where her children go to school — about 41 percent of children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches this school year, compared to about 49 percent before the pandemic, its said director of nutrition, Gay Anderson. Some parents have commented that they “would be better off giving up half the week’s work to get that free meal,” she said.
“The income eligibility guidelines are not keeping pace with inflation, and families are barely making ends meet. So we’re seeing a lot of people saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m not as eligible as ever.’ If they’re making a dollar more, or whatever, he’ll do it,” Ms Anderson said.
At Wellington Exempted Village Schools in Northeast Ohio, Andrea Helton, director of nutrition, described about 50 families being denied the program in a school district of about 1,000 students. She recalled a single mother who lamented, “I missed the cutoff for food by $100 less of gross income.”
But Ms Helton said: “I can’t do anything, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Families are also struggling to navigate the maze of new rules or unaware that the program had ended, struggling to pay for food that was once free.
Megan, a mother of three school-aged children in Ms. Helton’s district, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of privacy concerns, said she has become addicted to the program. So when the school pressed her for unpaid lunch money, “it came as a shocker.”
By the end of the fall semester, she had racked up $136 in debt.
When Megan learned that a holiday donation to the school district wiped out that amount, “I just melted into a puddle because when you’re down to that last $100, that’s the last thing you want to talk about.” I want to worry about whether your kids are eating or not,” she said through tears.
It is difficult to estimate how many students are going hungry now. But school officials and nutrition advocates point to proxy measurements — debts owed by families who can’t afford school meals, for example, or the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals — that unmet need. as proof of.
In a survey released this month by the School Nutrition Association, 96.3 percent of school districts reported an increase in food debt. Median debt increased to $5,164 per district through November, already higher than the $3,400 average reported for the entire school year in the group’s 2019 survey.
At school, Ms. Vazquez told kids sitting in the cafeteria about a packed lunch consisting only of chips or an apple. Others walk toward the cash register with lunch trays, “the child’s eyes when they see the computer, like, ‘Yeah, I know I’m negative, but I want to eat,’ a form of fear and validation.” Shining,” she said.
“You see other kids struggling and you know, hey, I’m in the same boat,” she said. “I know what you’re doing.”
The end of universal school meals has led to fewer schools participating in the program overall: about 88 percent of public schools are operating a meal program this school year, compared to 94 percent last school year, and 27.4 million children Fewer were eating school lunches in October, compared to about 30 million in May, the last month of the school year with the program in place.
This could create a vicious cycle in which low participation translates to a higher cost per meal, forcing schools to raise the price of meals and squeezing even more families, said Crystal Fitzsimmons of the Center for Food Research and Action, which Regularly talks with schools about their nutrition programs.
Schools and families alike face other administrative and financial complications as school officials grapple with rising wholesale costs and labor shortages, highlighting other challenges in increasing participation. Now executives must file paperwork to verify income eligibility, devote time and personnel to debt collection, and plan ahead for expected revenue and reimbursement rates.
At Prince William County Schools in Virginia, Adam T. Russo, director of nutrition, said his office has had to devote more resources to outreach and education to inform parents about the policy change. He already relies on a multilingual staff to serve the 90,000 students in his district, one of the most diverse in the state.
For many parents, he said, the process was new and potentially confusing, as some of their children had had universal free meals since starting school.
“If your child was in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, it’s a completely foreign process for your family,” he said. “It’s been table stakes, and we’ve pulled the tablecloth from under our families.”
Advocates say the application process, as well as the stigma attached to receiving free or reduced-price lunches, can be prohibitive. According to the research, in 2019, even though some 29.6 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, only 22 million received them. And nearly 20 percent of eligible households whose children did not receive either benefit reported food insecurity.
“Efforts are made to make sure these resources really do impact the kids they care about, what a cost, it’s as simple as saying, listening, the food is free,” Ms. Rodrigues said.
The universal free school meals program would increase the federal cost of school nutrition programs from $18.7 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to $28.7 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, according to data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. A spokeswoman said the department does not have an official estimate of the cost of permanently implementing the policy.
Such initiatives have garnered widespread support, with 74 percent of voters and 90 percent of parents favoring the idea, but federal legislation seems unlikely. Republican lawmakers in Congress opposed permanently extending the policy, arguing that free meals should only serve the needy and that the pandemic-era policies should eventually end.
Still, some states — and some parents — have been inspired to take action. The program was a lifesaver for Amber Stewart, a mother of five in Duluth, Minn.
Before the pandemic, when the family owed money for food, her daughter would receive a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, signaling to classmates that she could not afford a hot meal. The stern letters demanded repayment and warned of consequences.
“Then the pandemic hit and everyone was eligible for free food, and they delivered it or you could go pick it up,” Ms Stewart said. “It was amazing.”
With the intention of seeing the program enacted permanently, Ms. Stewart is now lobbying the Minnesota legislature to adopt universal free school meals across the state, a policy the governor recently endorsed.
Under new income guidelines, Ms Stewart’s children are now eligible for reduced price meals. And because of a state law that covers the fees usually payable by households in that category, they are not charged the 35 or 50 cents for breakfast or lunch.
This has been critical, she said, because even after weekly visits to the food bank, she doesn’t have enough.
“Our money is really tight,” she said. “With the cost of groceries and everything, we’re barely making it.”