LIMA — Families who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals may be paying full price when students return to school next fall, as federal nutrition waivers that allowed schools to provide meals at no cost to students during the pandemic are set to expire in June without Congressional reauthorization.
Advocates worry the expiration of universal free meals in school could create a “hunger cliff” for families already struggling to keep pace with rising food costs. Those costs are forcing schools to consider raising lunch prices too, right as families are expected to resume paying full price.
“It’s going to be rough at first, because it took this long for everybody to realize meals were free and now it’s going to take a while to realize meals are not free,” said Lori McKean-Brace, food service supervisor for Wapakoneta schools.
Participation in the free meals program at Wapakoneta schools hit roughly 85% by February, as packing became more costly, McKean-Brace said.
Families must now apply to continue receiving free or reduced-price meals for the upcoming school year, while those who earn too much to qualify will resuming paying full price or packing meals.
“It’s disheartening,” said Mariah Ross, Bath’s food service supervisor. “We were really hoping that we would have another year of the free-of-charge meals, but we don’t.”
The district is already notifying parents of the anticipated change so those who qualify for subsidized meals get their applications in early. Otherwise, Ross said, parents may have to pay full price for the first few weeks of school while applications are processed.
The school nutrition waivers, which require Congressional reauthorization to continue into the next school year, are the latest pandemic-era hunger relief program set to expire.
Families have already lost monthly payments from the expanded Child Tax Credit, which was crucial to those experiencing poverty and temporarily reduced child poverty in the U.S., said Eleni Towns, associate director for the No Kid Hungry campaign.
Eliminating resources like free school meals at a time when families are suffering from rising costs “is going to be a huge challenge,” Towns said.
Still, students at Wapakoneta schools who forget their lunch money may benefit from a lunch debt fund the district created years earlier, which McKean-Brace said has not been used since the pandemic started.
No student will be denied lunch because of their inability to pay, she said.