What happens now that school lunches are no longer free for all students?
The free school meals many families have grown accustomed to over the past two years will no longer be available to every student
As the 2022-23 school year begins, parents will be required to once more apply for free and reduced-price lunches. This marks the first time applications are needed since the pandemic first began and school meals became free for all students.
During the height of the pandemic, schools were able to use COVID-19 funds to feed students regardless of their family’s financial situation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that roughly 6.2% of U.S. households with children were suffering from food insecurity in 2021 and waived school lunch fees, providing 2.2 billion free or reduced-price meals to those students and their classmates that same year.
These meals that were paid for by the federal government ended in June of this year, requiring families to reapply for free or reduced-price school lunches for their students. As it was in years prior to the pandemic, household size and income will determine eligibility for the 2022-2023 school year. The calculation takes 2022’s federal poverty guideline and multiplies the dollar amount by 1.30 for free lunches, 1.85 for reduced-cost meals. But this guideline from the Department of Agriculture only accounts for household income. As CNN points out, this does not account for families in debt after losing their jobs during the pandemic.
The end of the federally waived school lunch cost also comes at a time when the cost of assembling a meal for students is continuing to rise. The Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that food prices have increased 10.9% since July of 2021 — the largest 12-month increase in over 40 years. Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, told NPR that for the “price of a latte,” schools are expected to assemble a meal that contains all the food groups a child needs.
Some states have passed new legislation in response to the pulling of federal funding to cover meals at school for all students, including New Jersey’s “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act” and California’s “Universal Meals Program.“ But even in states with their own laws to combat food insecurity in schools, many districts are worried that students will go hungry because their parents are unaware of policy changes. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that districts and schools alike are working to get the word out to parents, so as to reduce the number of children who will go to school hungry this year.
For parents who are earning at or below the income eligibility guideline, applications are available online through school districts or through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Families automatically qualify for free lunches if they participate in federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Those eligible for unemployment compensation may also qualify for their child to receive free or reduced lunches.