School & District Management

Schools Are Struggling to Get Families to Apply for Free Meals

By Arianna Prothero — December 13, 2022 2 min read
Empty school cafeteria with a view of empty seats and tables and stacks of lunch trays.
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Anecdotes of fast-rising student school meal debt have been piling up, and now new federal data bolsters stories that schools are struggling to get eligible families to sign up for free- and reduced-priced meals.

The big problem, school nutrition directors say, is that a pandemic-era program to provide all students with free meals ended this school year and many families may not be aware that they are now obligated to pay for meals.

A third of schools say they have had trouble convincing parents to submit applications for free or reduced priced meals, according to a recent survey of 1,000 elementary, middle, and high schools across the country conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. That was the most-cited challenge out of a list that included increased program costs and staffing shortages.

And that’s not for lack of trying.

Rhonda Ramsdell, the food services director for a school district in South Dakota told Education Week in October that her district makes frequent calls to families to remind them to complete the paperwork, and has been trying to get the word out through fliers, social media, and email since the summer. Student meal debt in her district, like many others, had exceeded what accumulates in a typical year in just the first few months of this school year.

U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional waivers, which had allowed schools to provide free meals to all students regardless of income since 2020, and provided flexibility to other rules, expired over the summer. Families that earn at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line are still eligible for free meals and families that earn at or below 185 percent are still eligible for reduced priced meals. But now parents must fill out paperwork to get those free and reduced priced meals.

Overall, more than a quarter of the schools that operate USDA school and breakfast meal programs said in the survey that it was more difficult for their school to operate meal programs during this school year compared to 2021-22.

The survey, administered in October, is part of the Institute of Education Sciences School Pulse Panel to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and staff in K-12 schools.

See also

Image of students in line for a school meal.
Lisa Rathke/AP

Fewer public schools may be taking part in the federal meal program. Eighty-eight percent of schools in the survey said that students can participate in the USDA school meal programs, compared with 94 percent who said so in March.

A few states—California, Colorado, and Maine—have moved to make school meals free to all students since the federal waivers expired. Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont, meanwhile, have committed to providing free school meals to all students through this school year.

Supply chain challenges remain

Supply chain disruptions continue to bedevil school district food services programs as well as other district operations.

One in four schools that responded to the federal survey said that procurement problems had a “severe” or “moderate” negative impact on their food service operations, while 27 percent said the same when it came to getting enough laptops and other electronic devices.

Schools have struggled to varying degrees to get the items essential to operating over the past two years when the pandemic knocked a highly-strained and delicately-balanced system of factories, ports, and distributors out of whack.

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