Last school year, breakfast at Dr. Justina Ford Elementary School in Centennial, Colo., was the place to be.
More than 100 children a day would join in for the meal, building a community among the students, said Jessica Gould, the nutrition services director at Littleton Public Schools, the district that oversees Ford Elementary.
At the time, all students were able to eat for free regardless of their family’s income level because of a set of U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that helped school lunchrooms continue feeding students during the pandemic. This school year, those waivers expire, meaning most students will have to meet strict income qualifications to receive a free breakfast or lunch.
Ford serves a primarily affluent area, so most families will have to pay for meals. During the first day of school, Aug. 17, Gould could already see a difference. There were only five students eating breakfast that morning.
“I could already see the divide,” Gould said. “That breaks my heart because every child should feel completely OK and want to come and have breakfast, especially if they haven’t had it, and have no shame related to that.”
After the first day, Gould saw the impacts of the waiver’s expiration ripple throughout her district in other ways. Fifteen percent of Littleton students who ate school meals on Wednesday didn’t have any money in their accounts, racking up $1,500 in total school meal debt across the district after day one, she said. Littleton covers the costs of those debts through a donation program so all students can eat for free, but if each day brings in the same level of debt, Gould foresees the district having to dip into its general fund to cover the costs.
This year, only students in California, Maine, and Vermont have access to universal free meals because of laws passed in those states to establish free meal programs. Everywhere else, nutrition directors like Gould are scrambling to make sure families know their options and students don’t get left without meals.
A flurry of changes in school nutrition policy
Starting in 2020, the USDA waivers offered higher-than-normal reimbursement rates to offset pandemic-related inflation costs, allowed schools flexibility to serve meals to-go, and gave students access to free school meals regardless of income. In March, Congress failed to include those waiversin President Joe Biden’s $1.5 trillion 2022 federal budget.
Despite that setback,Congress was able to pass the Keep Kids Fed Act in June. The bipartisan effort extended the meal-flexibility waivers so lunchrooms can provide breakfast and lunch to-go and access reimbursement rates that are 40 cents higher for lunch and 15 cents higher for breakfast than what districts receive normally.
Although it did not extend the waiver that allowed all children to eat for free, the Keep Kids Fed Act has helped “immensely,” said Emily Malone, the director of child nutrition at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools in Minnesota. Because of the higher reimbursement rates, Malone did not have to raise meal prices even with inflation.
“I’m not going to be able to sustain that forever, and especially not if the reimbursement rate goes down,” Malone said. “For this year, especially being the first year that parents are going to have to pay in a long time, I wanted to at least ease their mind a little bit and not raise meal prices.”
Because Congress did not extend the universal free meals waiver prior to the school year, students in most states will have to apply for free and reduced-price meals, which require families to make at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line or attend a school that is part of the Community Eligibility Provision to eat for free. The provision allows schools or clusters of schools with 40 percent or more students who are certified for free and reduced-price meals to offer all students free meals.
In July, a group of Democratic lawmakers in Congress introduced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, a bill that would reauthorize USDA child nutrition programs and extend the Community Eligibility Provision to apply to more schools.
The bill could potentially allow for families who don’t quite meet the free and reduced-price meal threshold to have some reprieve.
“In Colorado, specifically, it is incredibly expensive to live right now,” Gould said. “So the threshold we have related to the qualifiers for free-and-reduced [meals] is just not covering our families in need.”
In November, Colorado voters will decide on a ballot measure that would establish the state’s own universal free meals program.
A communication challenge
Malone and Gould have tried their best to be proactive in communicating the many changes going into the new school year.
Gould asked families who believed they would benefit from free or reduced-price lunch to apply at the end of last school year to give her team more time to process the applications. Both leaders sent out constant reminders about the free and reduced-price options through district emails, newsletters, social media posts, and phone calls.
That challenge compounds other issues that have plagued lunchrooms, including inflation, supply-chain disruptions, and staffing shortages. Malone said she’s had to streamline menus and reducing meal options because there aren’t enough staff members to prepare the food.
“We are facing a staffing shortage crisis,” Malone said. “I don’t know how else to say it. It is a crisis.”
But even with the many challenges they face, the nutrition director’s top priority remains student well-being. That means working to prevent meal stigma, preparing nutritious meals, and creating a positive atmosphere in lunch rooms.
“[We’re] really trying to create the positive experience in our lunchrooms within all of the challenges related to who gets meals, and at what cost,” Gould said.