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Schools encourage families to sign up for free school meals

For almost two years, all children could get free meals at school — something that is no longer an option.

BOISE, Idaho — Families with children in public schools will now have to apply for free and reduced meals, following the end of a pandemic-era program.

Some parents are feeling the loss like Shauntel Clark, who is the mother of a second grader. She said packing lunches in the morning only adds stress to her day.

“It’s more just of a morning struggle with three little kids,” Clark said. “Now you have to worry about either packing a lunch or making sure she has money on the account.”

Parent Lori Amos agrees. She said the federal program saved her about $140 a year and paying for lunch is a necessity only some can afford.

“Jobs have been a struggle for a lot of people and finances are a struggle now still, for a lot of people,” Amos said. “So, it’s gonna be kind of difficult.”

School districts around the Treasure Valley are spreading the word about the free and reduced meal application. Eligibility depends on a family’s income and the number of children they have, said Shannon Beasley, West Ada School District Nutrition Director.

Beasley said getting applications submitted before the start of the school year is a priority.

Before the pandemic, she said 24% of families in the district received free and reduced meals. That’s about 18,000 lunches per day. Since 2020, that number has jumped to 24,000.

To ensure families apply, Beasley said the district is putting up QR codes in front of schools, sending out emails and eventually will notify all families via a mass text.

“We have amazing salad bars, we have fabulous home-cooked meals, we have fabulous quick and easy grab lunches for those kids that are the busy lunchroom kids,” Beasley said. “We want our families to continue to eat with us.”

The Twin Falls School District has similar promotion tactics. One of their concerns with the transition is meal debt. Public Relations Director Eva Craner said if your child does not qualify for free and reduced lunches, being proactive about putting money in your student’s account makes everyone’s life easier.

“We’re going to feed the kids that get in line for lunch every single day, whether they have money in their account or not,” Craner said. “But then we have to foot the bill for it, which essentially takes away resources from other things like teacher salaries, and, you know, things like textbooks and supplies.”

Even though widespread federal funding for meals is over, some schools are still able to offer free breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision Program. However, Craner said it is still a good idea for families to fill out the free and reduced form regardless.

She said the free and reduced forms help decide how much federal funding schools receive. If the need is there, the government may provide additional assistance.

In the West Ada School District, Beasley said those who qualify for free and reduced meals may also have access to other things, like free internet at home and college application discounts.

Families that participate in federal assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program or Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho automatically qualify for free and reduced meals.

Those on Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations also automatically qualify for the program, but an application may still be required to participate. Everyone else who does not fall under that umbrella can apply throughout the school year.

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