Like other parents, April Vazquez, a school nutrition specialist in Sioux Falls, S.D., cuts back on coupons, buys in bulk and forgoes outings and restaurant meals. However, a hot lunch in the school cafeteria for her three children is now a treat she has to plan carefully in her budget.
Expiration of exemptions that guaranteed free school meals almost 30 million students across the United States during the pandemic has meant that families like Ms. Vazquez’s, who earn just above the income threshold, are no longer eligible for the federal program that allows children to eat for free.
With pandemic-era aid programs winding down and inflation hitting record highs, Ms. Vazquez is hardly alone. The number of students receiving free lunches has dropped by about a third to about 18.6 million in October, the most recent month with available data. In comparison, I guess 20.3 million students they ate free in October 2019, before the pandemic. This decline can be attributed to several factors, such as lack of eligibility, lack of awareness that the program ended at the beginning of the school year, and an overall smaller number of schools participating in the program.
“It just makes things a hell of a lot harder at the most difficult time I think American families have experienced in a generation,” said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union Network.
Ms. Vazquez is struggling to return to the reality of having to pay full price for school meals — about $3 or $4 for each child — and most days the kids bring her a packed lunch. (Bagels, cream cheese, and apples are typical; grapes and strawberries are rare because they are too expensive.)
“It’s painful to know that my children will not be freed or reduced,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Vazquez worked part-time as a special education aide, and her children fluctuated between qualifying for free and reduced-price meals from year to year. But when she started full-time as a nutritionist in August 2021, her salary was just enough to get her family through. income threshold for both benefits: about $42,000 a year in free meals for a family of five and $60,000 in reduced-price meals.
“That was actually a concern when I was applying for this position because you don’t know what’s going to happen, am I going to be disqualified for that?” she said, adding that she ultimately took the job with long-term financial stability in mind.
While some parents saw wage increases and expanded criteria for free and reduced-price meals, these benefits did little to dampen the impact of rising food costs.
OF school year 2019-20 on this school year, income eligibility for free and discounted meals increased by roughly 7.8 percent. Average hourly wage growth in the same period they increased by 15.1 percent. Consumer pricesalthough they increased by 15.4 percent, and food prices by 20.2 percent, outpacing wage growth.
More about American schools and education
In the Sioux Falls school district — where Ms. Vazquez works and where her children attend school — about 41 percent of children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch this school year, compared with about 49 percent before the pandemic, the nutrition director said. Gay Anderson. Some parents commented that “it would be better if they missed half a week of work to get a free meal,” she said.
“Income entitlement guidelines are simply not keeping up with inflation and families are barely making ends meet. So what we’re seeing is a lot of people saying, ‘I can’t believe I’m not qualifying like always.’ If they make a dollar more, or whatever, that will be enough,” Ms. Anderson said.
At Wellington Exempted Village Schools in Northeast Ohio, Andrea Helton, director of nutrition, described the denial of the program to nearly 50 families in a school district of about 1,000 students. She recalled a single mother lamenting, “I missed the $100 gross income deduction for food.”
But Mrs Helton said: “There’s nothing I can do and it’s heartbreaking.”
Families are also struggling to navigate the maze of new rules or, unaware the program has ended, face having to pay for food that was once free.
Megan, a mother of three school-age children in Ms. Helton’s district, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of privacy concerns, said she has gotten used to the program. So when the school pressed her to owe money for unpaid lunches, “it was a shock.”
By the end of the fall semester, she had racked up $136 in debt.
When Megan learned that the school district’s holiday donations wiped out that amount, “I just melted into a puddle because when you’re down to that last $100, the last thing you want to worry about is whether your kids are eating. or not,” she said through tears.
It is difficult to estimate how many students are now hungry. But school officials and nutrition advocates point to proxy measures — such as the debt owed by families who can’t afford school meals or the number of requests for free and reduced-price meals — as evidence of unmet need.
in survey released this month according to the School Nutrition Association, 96.3 percent of school districts reported that food debt had increased. Median debt rose to $5,164 per district by November, already higher than the $3,400 median reported for the entire school year in group survey for 2019.
At school, Ms. Vazquez described witnessing children sitting in the cafeteria with packed lunches consisting of nothing more than a bag of chips or an apple. Others approached the cash register with a tray of lunch, “a look of fear and knowing flashed in the kids’ eyes when they see the computer, like, ‘Yeah, I know I’m negative, but I want to eat,'” she said.
“You see other kids struggling and know, hey, I’m in the same boat,” she added. “I know exactly what you’re going through.
The end of universal school meals resulted in fewer schools participating in the program: About 88 percent of public schools operated a meal program this school year, compared to 94 percent the previous school year, and 27.4 million children ate school meals. lunch in October compared to about 30 million in May, the last month of the school year when the program is in place.
That can create a vicious cycle in which lower participation translates into higher food costs, forcing schools to raise food prices and pushing out even more families, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, who routinely talks to schools about their nutrition programs.
Schools and families alike face additional administrative and financial complications as school officials grapple with rising wholesale costs and labor shortages, pointing to additional challenges in increasing participation. Now, officials must process paperwork to verify income eligibility, devote time and personnel to debt collection, and plan ahead for expected returns and reimbursement rates.
Adam T. Russo, director of nutrition for Prince William County Schools in Virginia, said his office needs to devote more resources to outreach and education to inform parents of the policy change. It already relies on a multilingual staff to serve 90,000 students in its district, one of the most diverse in the state.
For many parents, he said, the process was new and potentially confusing given that universal free meals had been in place since some of their children started school.
“If your child has been in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, it’s a completely foreign process for your family,” he said. “They were table stakes and we pulled the tablecloth out from under our families.
The application process, as well as the stigma associated with receiving a free or reduced-price lunch, can be excruciating, advocates say. Although about 29.6 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in 2019, only 22 million received one, according to research. AND about 20 percent of eligible households whose children did not receive a single dose, reported lack of food.
“The effort that goes into making sure that these resources actually reach those kids, for what it’s worth, it’s a hell of a lot easier to just say, listen, the food is free,” Ms. Rodrigues said.
The Universal Free School Meals Program moved federal spending on school nutrition programs from $18.7 billion in FY 2019 to $28.7 billion in FY 2022. according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, which administers the program. The department does not have an official estimate of the cost of permanently enacting the policy, the spokeswoman said.
Such an initiative has gained wide support and polls have shown it 74 percent of voters and 90 percent of parents support this idea, but federal law seems unlikely. Republican lawmakers in Congress oppose a permanent expansion of the policy, saying free meals should only serve those most in need and that the pandemic-era policy must eventually end.
Still, some states — and some parents — were spurred into action. For Amber Stewart, a mother of five in Duluth, Minn., the program was a lifesaver.
Before the pandemic, when the family owed money for food, her daughter would get a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, letting her classmates know she couldn’t afford a hot meal. Stern’s letters demanded a refund and warned of consequences.
“Then the pandemic hit and everyone was eligible for free food and they delivered it or they could go pick it up,” said Ms. Stewart, who asked not to be identified by her maiden name. “It was amazing.”
Intent on making the program permanent, Ms. Stewart is now lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to pass free universal school meals statewide, a policy the governor recently approved.
Under the new income guidelines, Ms Stewart’s children are now entitled to reduced-price meals. And because of a state law that covers fees that families in this category normally owe, they aren’t charged 35 or 50 cents for breakfast or lunch.
That was key, she said, because even after weekly trips to the food bank, she doesn’t have enough to make ends meet.
“Our money is really tight,” she said. “With the cost of groceries and everything, we can barely make it.