BOISE, Idaho — Lunchtime on the first day of school at Mountain View Elementary earlier this month brought the familiar bustle of students scurrying to find their assigned table in the cafeteria while administrators checked trays and lunch bags to make sure everyone had something to eat.
Many brought their own sack lunches this school year, because unlike the last two, not every child is eligible for free meals provided by the school.
During the pandemic, schools were able to provide meals for free to kids regardless of income as a part of COVID-19 assistance passed by Congress to reduce food insecurity. This meant that nationally, an estimated 10 million kids who would have previously paid for school meals were able to get them free. But Congress did not agree to provide universal free lunches for a third school year.
About 30% of the student population here qualifies for free or reduced lunch, mirroring data from the whole Boise School District system. But the other 70% are now responsible for paying their own way for breakfast and lunch.
“The biggest challenge is going to be on the children,” said Christy Smith, supervisor of the Food and Nutrition Services at the Boise School District. “Regardless of income, there are children who are hungry because children face obstacles to accessing nourishing food at home and those are the kids that are going to suffer the most.”
Nationwide, families across all income levels are feeling the strain of high food, gas, housing and utility costs. And Congress’ decision to not extend a pandemic benefit that provided free meals to all students regardless of need will soon hit the pocketbooks of parents and provide new challenges for schools still grappling to return to normal.
“We are not on the edge, but our grocery budget could not afford $7.50 a day [for her kids’ school lunches] five days a week,” said Vanessa Gamma, a mother of three attending Mountain View. “It would just be not something that even not on the edge we could afford.”
School meal prices challenge parents and educators
The Boise School District, like others across the country, is preparing to raise the prices of meals in its elementary schools by 10 cents this academic year in order to combat rising food and labor costs.
“Our families in Boise can’t afford even a modest price increase,” Smith said. “Boise’s become a very expensive place to live and even 10 cents sounds modest, but that’s a lot of money to families who can’t pay their bills right now and don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.”
Across the country, school meals can cost parents upwards of $5 per meal.
In nearby West Ada — Idaho’s largest school district, where only 14% of the student population fully qualifies for free and reduced-price meals — prices will increase by 30 cents.
Shannon McCarthy Beasley, West Ada’s school nutrition supervisor, is on a mission to get as many kids as possible to buy the schools’ hot, fresh and, most importantly she says, nutritious, meals.
“I have this challenge of convincing families my meals are better. My meals are better than what you can pack,” said McCarthy Beasley. “And I am up for that challenge.”
Advocates like McCarthy Beasley say school meals are often some of the healthiest that many students have access to because of the nutrition requirements behind every dish served. In order to streamline the process, West Ada has created a QR code families can scan and use to fill out the applications to see if they qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But that final bill is still a challenge.
“A mom and dad making $15 an hour with a family of three — they don’t qualify,” McCarthy Beasley said.
The challenges to pivot back to a pre-pandemic system are felt across the country as schools work to reach all parents, hire additional staff members to collect meal money in lunch lines and prepare to return to tracking the finances of each child.
“As much as we all would like to go back to normal into a pre-COVID world, we’re just not there,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. “Staffing shortages are impacting school nutrition departments across the country and the supply chain continues to be a mess. Food price inflation is increasing significantly, and so school meal programs continue to have to continue to face a lot of challenges and juggle a lot of different dynamics.”
Federal rules add to the challenges
When Congress created the ability for schools to give universal free meals, it did so by allowing the Agriculture Department, the federal agency that governs what and how is served at school, to waive certain federal requirements. Lawmakers waived requirements for schools to provide free lunch based on need, nutrition requirements for the food served and requirements that meals needed to be served in congregate settings, like cafeterias.
All of those waivers were set to expire on June 30.
Two of them were recently extended. But Senate Republicans balked at the cost of providing universal free meals for another year, and as part of the final compromise, Democrats agreed to drop it from the package.
This means all schools will go back to requiring that families pay the full price for each meal if they do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
In order to qualify, families must meet income requirements that are the same across the country. For the 2022-2023 school year a family of four must make less than $51,338 to qualify for reduced-price meals and $36,075 to qualify for free meals.
But each school district sets its own school meal prices, and those can significantly vary, as can the cost of living — not just within states but from state to state, which the income requirements don’t account for.
“I’ve already received an unprecedented number of requests from families to reconsider their denial for meal benefits after they submitted an application,” said Smith of the Boise School District. “And of course, that’s not something that we have control over. It is heart-wrenching.”
In Colorado, some schools are raising their meal prices by 50 cents. For families with multiple kids, it adds up.
Sarah Kremmerling is a mother of two in Boulder, Colo., and her family has qualified for free lunches on and off over the years. For both kids, her monthly bill could total upwards of $200 if they were to eat at school every day.
“I fill out the application every year, but the only time I’ve been able to qualify for them is usually when I’m working like almost less than part-time — like I really can’t be working at all to qualify for them,” Kremmerling said. “I just think that’s kind of crazy when you look at, like, the price of living.”
Mary Rochelle, who works as the program, events and grant coordinator at the Food Services Department of the Boulder Valley School District, said her district is scrambling to hire employees to help students purchase the meals as opposed to just being able to hand them a tray for food.
Lawmakers waited until just days before all the waivers expired on June 30 to pass the bill that extended some waivers but left free school meals out. Congressional delay in extending, or not extending, pandemic school meal waivers also hindered schools’ ability to plan.
“There was a lot of talk and a lot of hope that the universal meals would be extended and we weren’t really sure how much we should tell parents free meals are definitely ending because we felt like we weren’t given a clear answer until June and our school year ends the end of May,” Rochelle said.
The universal school meal debate resumes
Even before the pandemic, progressives, food and nutrition advocates were pushing for a universal school meal system that would offer school meals to students regardless of income. Advocates said the existing system of having three categories of pricing results in burdensome application processes, stigmatizes students who receive free meals and can cause families to carry lunch debt.
“We also have seen kids who were eligible for free school meals kind of slipped through the cracks and not get certified either because they were missed in direct certification or there were literacy or language barriers to the school meal application,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out of school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center.
Some states have taken their own action. California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont have passed legislation or rules to allow all students in their states to receive free meals this upcoming school year. Others have legislation pending in statehouses.
“There’s a lot of innovation happening in communities and at the state level. I think where the conversation gets stuck is at the federal level,” said Davis. “And a big part of that is because the discussions again are all around price tags and offsets through that very narrow lens.”
On the Hill, Democrats and Republicans are still divided. Some progressives have introduced legislation that would provide free meals, but GOP members argue the price tag would be too high and that free meals is an assistance program that should be targeted.
“Congress never intended to provide universal free breakfast and lunches to all K-12 students regardless of need,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.Y., during a floor speech debating the waiver extensions in June. She favored the bill because the free meals would be extended by only one year, not longer. “By returning these programs back to normal we can return our responsibility to taxpayers and the principle that aid should be targeted and temporary.”
Many education, hunger and nutrition groups have asked the White House to recommend that Congress implement universal school meals as a part of the broader list of recommendations expected to come out of the conference on hunger, nutrition and health next month. But until then, schools will need to adjust for the foreseeable future — whether or not they or families are ready.
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