School districts prepare and adjust for school year without free lunches for all
For the first time in two years, school districts are returning to a school year without funding to provide free lunches for all students
When the pandemic hit, Congress allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to waive eligibility requirements and provide school meals free of cost to students. But, the program was not renewed this year.
Federal aid for universally free school lunches ended at the end of June, leaving districts scrambling to get qualifying families to re-submit applications for Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL).
Superintendent at Marcus-Remsen-Cleghorn-Union, Dan Barkel, said he was disappointed that the federal aid was not extended. Now, he said, the district will focus on making sure families understand their options.
“For some families, this might be a bit of a stretch because obviously they've gotten used to not having to pay,” Barkel said. “And, of course, with inflation hitting the pocketbooks of a lot of folks, I have a feeling that it'll be a bit of a shock.”
Barkel said it’s important to encourage families to fill out federal forms to find out what they qualify for. Children in households with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line qualify for free lunches. Families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent qualify for a reduced cost.
But, food service director at Lawton-Bronson Community School district in northwest Iowa, Jane Andersen, said she’s worried about families who may fall through the cracks. She said rising prices have already taken a toll on many of them.
“My whole feeling is I just want to feed the kids, because I know there are hungry kids out there,” Andersen said. “What's going to happen to these kids when parents have a hard time buying groceries at the grocery store, and then they can afford to pay for their lunch?”
In 2019, 43 percent of students in Iowa schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches
Michelle Book, CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa, said the loss of the pandemic aid will push schools to spend more time and money on enrolling families in food programs. She said many parents may feel shame about filling out the paperwork.
“When kids aren't getting the food they need at school that puts additional pressure on the parents and additional pressure on our local food pantries. There's a ripple effect,” Michelle said.
Barkel said he thinks the last two years have broken down some of the stigma to being on FRL – hopefully meaning more families will apply. But, he said he anticipates an increase in negative balances, as the costs return to parents.
“It might be that much harder for us to collect, which will then likely put us in a bad light because we're trying to get lunch money from families who are already struggling or working paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
“When kids aren't getting the food they need at school that puts additional pressure on the parents and additional pressure on our local food pantries. There's a ripple effect."Michelle Book, CEO of Food Bank of Iowa
Some larger school districts like Des Moines Public Schools and Council Bluffs Community School District will continue free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) – which allows high poverty schools to provide no-charge breakfast and lunches.
At Shenandoah School District in rural southwest Iowa, a little more than 40 percent of students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL). Superintendent Kerri Nelson said this qualifies the district to use some of its cash reserves to participate in CEP this fall.
She said the program will be a cost to the district – but that families in the community need it. Nelson said she doesn’t feel they’ve had enough time to recover from inflationary costs.
“At least they have a little bit of time to plan,” Nelson said. “Whereas, you know, making the announcement abruptly this spring doesn't allow families to plan.”
She said they will participate for as long as they can, but that it’s a temporary solution for the district. Nelson estimates the district’s nutritional budget will get them through at least one semester.
In the meantime, she’s helping prepare families for the change.
“The greatest benefit is knowing that kids aren't stressed about where their next meal is coming from,” she said. “That's why I'm willing to take a little bit of a financial risk, and that's why our board is willing to support it.”