After 2 years of free school lunches, kids now have to choose between going into debt at the cafeteria or not eating at all
Jessica Gould was worried about the student who stopped eating.
The student’s family was struggling to afford the roughly $4 school lunch, racking up hundreds of dollars in balances due at the cafeteria.
“The conversation in my office specifically was, ‘If they don’t start eating in the next day or two, we need to be reaching out to them and telling them, please keep eating,'” said Gould, who works as the director for nutrition and warehousing in a school district just south of Denver, Colorado.
“It’s a very uncomfortable place to be,” she said, but it was just one in a myriad of challenges that Gould and her peers face this year. In one school in Gould’s district, over 100 students a day came in for breakfast last year; on a recent visit, she said, there were less than ten students eating.
Sandra Schossow, the director of food and nutrition for a school district in Arizona, said this school year has already been the most challenging of her career. That’s because, for two years, school lunches were free in America, part of the billions that Congress poured into pandemic-era stimulus. But not anymore.
“Last year was amazing,” Schossow said. “Every kid never had to wonder if they had enough money. Every parent didn’t have to think about, ‘Okay, do I let them eat two days a week because I can only afford two days? Do I let them eat every day and just figure out how to budget into our family budget?'”
Lawmakers had the opportunity to renew the program again for this school year, but didn’t include it as part of their March spending package to keep the government open. For parents, that means a new cost: Keeping their kids fed while at school. School meals are getting more expensive, and that’s left kids to rack up negative balances in cafeterias, or go hungry.
“School meals, first and foremost, are critical. I’d like to see that importance expand and catch fire across our country,” School Nutrition Association president Lori Adkins, who works as a child nutrition consultant for Michigan’s Oakland Schools, told Insider.
Free school lunches were one plank in a radically different economic platform that existed briefly in the US. It gave extra support to workers suddenly laid off amidst the pandemic — which, for some, meant the first time they had a consistent living wage. It gave Americans stimulus cash infusions to stay afloat, and then gave parents even more in the form of monthly child tax credit checks. The supplemental poverty rate, which accounts for government assistance, fell to its lowest ever-measure in 2021. Child poverty alone went down by 46% in 2021, according to the US Census Bureau.
But the bumpy legislative waters of navigating the post-vaccine world led to all of those programs ending. In some cases, states are picking up the pieces using their surplus budgets left over from Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic-era stimulus. In California, Nevada, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts, for example, lunch remains free, with students eating farm fresh food from a well-staffed cafeteria. But that’s not the case everywhere. As a result, a family with three kids on reduced-price lunch shells out a couple hundred dollars a month, according to Adkins.
Now, Schossow said, the policy is to give students five notices that they’re low on funds before switching them to an alternative meal — a cheese sandwich, with fruits, vegetables, and milk.
“I hate it. I hate the whole process,” she said. “It’s been a challenge when you have to cashier and tell the kid, ‘You need money, you need money, or no, you don’t have enough money for today.’ So yeah, it’s been a hard start.”
Rising wages mean fewer parents are eligible for free and reduced lunch, even as prices go up faster than pay
Free and reduced-price lunches are still an option, depending on parents’ income. To qualify for reduced price meals this school year, a family of three needs to have an income of $42,606 or below. For completely free meals, that same family has to make $29,939 or below.
Jennifer Kapinus, who’s in charge of food for a school district in rural Wisconsin, spent the summer trying to get the word out about the end of free lunches. But many families didn’t notice or understand the change, she said. When school started up, lunch participation numbers were really high.
“That lasted for about two weeks. Then I had to send out notices about negative meal service balances,” she said. The number of students eating lunch went down right away.
Families told Kapinus that they don’t qualify for free or reduced lunches, but they can’t afford to pay for food.
“They’re choosing between putting gas in their car to get to work right now or paying a school lunch bill,” Kapinus said.
Gould’s been encountering that as well — she said 21% of the families in her district have been denied based on income. In one case, a family in Gould’s district earned just a few hundred above the cutoff for reduced lunch. They’re currently racking up debt in the cafeteria, she said.
Schossow said that housing prices and cost of living in Arizona have both soared. A raise in the state’s hourly minimum wage to $12.80 hasn’t kept up with surging prices, but it has made many parents now ineligible for free and reduced lunch, whose income cutoffs were decided earlier this year before inflation spiked 8.3% year over year.
“You have families that don’t qualify, that used to qualify every single year, but their income didn’t go up as much as the increased costs,” she said. “So now they really can’t afford it.”
Some states have kept lunch free — and it’s meant more students eating farm-fresh food
In Massachusetts, school lunches are still free. For Leah Botko, a food services director in the state, that’s been great. The number of kids eating lunch has only grown from last year. The district has been able to continue their partnerships with local farms, and “are trying new foods that we wouldn’t necessarily try if students had to be paying.” A recent spinach salad was a hit, she said, and roasted zucchini and butternut squash are both upcoming on the menu.
With the state program, Botko’s been able to hire more people, and “that’s great, because it’s giving the town more jobs.” She said it’s helped her be able to spend her days focused on feeding students.
“The time that I would typically spend chasing people down for money, now I’m able to make new recipes and talk to local farms and make these connections,” Botko said.
“It fosters trust with the students,” she said. “They’re not afraid that they owe money. They can come up and get their meal and they don’t even have to worry about, did mom put money on my lunch account? Or are they going to yell at me again because I’m negative?”
That’s a stark contrast to the food service directors in states where the program has ended. They report fewer students eating at school, and smaller staffs. “The stigma came back as quickly as it went away,” Gould said of her districts in Colorado, with kids no longer wanting to even eat cheaper cafeteria meals together — despite that being what their parents can afford.
“I completely understand why states are doing what they’re doing,” Gould said about the states spending their budgets on preserving free lunches for all. “We’re not seeing the movement and the support, nationally, in a bipartisan way,”
In Wisconsin, Kapinus said it’s “shocking to me that there is any politician within our government system that would not want universal free meals.”
“It’s the basics of doing the right thing,” she said.
Arizona’s Schossow is hoping that someone does the math to figure out how to make the program cheaper, so that Congress and the USDA don’t chafe at the additional $11 billion cost and could potentially reinstate free meals.
“I feel like every person in Congress should have to cashier in a school for one day and see what it’s like,” she said.