Public schools have provided free lunches and breakfasts to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that will end on June 30.
The US Department of Agriculture implemented free meals nationwide in March 2020 to help with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Congress recently decided not to renew funding for the program, meaning that families will have to again pay for school meals with the start of the 2022-23 school year.
The past two years of free healthy meals has been a help for families, especially during school closures, when school districts shifted to grab-and-go meals that families could pick up, and amid ongoing food chain and food supply issues, and record inflation .
For families who relied on the school lunches to provide at least one daily nutritious meal – a significant factor in reducing food insecurity – the end of the program is cause for concern.
“It’s been very beneficial for a school district like us that is socioeconomically challenged,” said Dr. Keith Hartbauer, Superintendent of Brownsville Area School District. “It gives kids an opportunity, even in the summer, to have a solid meal at least once a day. If a child’s basic needs aren’t being met, like food and shelter, how can we expect them to excel in any other area? The program has been a godsend for us.”
Burgettstown Area School District Superintendent Stephen Puskar also said he’d like to see the program extended.
“The lingering effects of the pandemic on the economy, as well as other factors, have really put a strain on households. The universal free meal program certainly benefited our families,” said Puskar, adding that the school district saw an increase in participation in both breakfast and lunch programs as a result of the universal free meal program.
California and Maine passed legislation that will enable these states to continue to provide universal school meals after the federal waiver ends.
At the federal level, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill, “Support Kids Not Red Tape,” to provide free meals during the summers of 2022 and 2023, and the 2022-23 school year.
Jefferson-Morgan School District Superintendent Brandon Robinson said school districts “would love to see the free meals waiver not only extended for the 2022-2023 school year, but for all students moving forward to receive a free breakfast and lunch for the future of their public education.”
In the Uniontown Area School District, free school lunches will be provided for the 2022-23 school year because the school district qualifies under the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision for school districts in low-income areas.
Local school districts want parents to know that they can soon start to fill out the applications necessary to see if their student or students qualify for federal free or reduced lunches.
Qualifications for federal free and reduced meals are based on household size and either annual, monthly or weekly family income.
Applications for free and reduced meals will be available on all area school districts’ websites beginning July 1.
But the task of collecting and verifying families’ qualification for free or reduced-price meals at the beginning of every academic year isn’t easy, and families can lose track of applications or feel too ashamed to fill them out.
“The normal free and reduced program certainly assists families on a tight budget. However, that system is not perfect in that it relies, in part, on families registering,” said Puskar.
He added, “While certainly the aim of the universal free meals was to ensure students were fed, a byproduct was certainly alleviating any stigma that may have existed.”
The program’s expiration date looms, but Robinson hopes it is renewed.
Among the benefits, he said, “are that all students and families do not have to stress over paying for meals while their child is in school.”
“We have always had a free and reduced program, but many families that do not qualify for this can still use the help,” said Robinson. “With the rising costs of everything, I believe a free meals program is more essential than ever.”