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Universal free lunch has ended: ‘Students can’t learn if they’re hungry’

Now that COVID-era free meals for all have expired, many parents are fearing for their finances and the health of their children.
/ Source: TODAY

As a new school year ramps up across the country, millions of students are adjusting to life without a key part of their day: free school breakfasts and lunches for everyone, regardless of their parents’ income.

A COVID-era universal free lunch program has expired this academic year. Free or reduced meals are still available for those who qualify and go through an application process — but even so, many parents are worried about their finances and their ability to feed their children.

Cassie Williams, 38, is a working mother of two kids, ages 6 and 2. Pregnant with her second at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Williams kept her firstborn from attending a nearby pre-K program because it was not part of her Michigan town's public education system.

"It was exempt from the COVID protocols, so we chose not to send him because they didn't have any safety measures in place," Williams told TODAY. "My son started his first year of school last school year."

Starting public school during the continued public health crisis means Williams and her son have "only ever known life with the free lunch program," she says.

Now, she says she's worried that life is going to change significantly.

Why did universal free lunch end?

In 2020, during the onset of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service made free school lunches available to all children regardless of family income, eliminating the red tape low-income parents previously had to navigate in order to qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"Prior to COVID-19, families who qualified for free and reduced lunch had to fill out some paperwork and apply, and you had to be under the poverty line," Ailen Arreaza, co-director of the nonprofit parent advocacy group ParentsTogether, told TODAY. "After COVID, there was no paperwork to fill out and no income requirement — school lunch was free for everyone."

The Food and Nutrition Service also issued other waivers that expanded access to meals for all children, particularly during the summer months when school was not in session.

The food assistance measures were set to expire in June. President Joe Biden signed a law just days before the expiration date that extended some of the waivers, but the law — known as the Keep Kids Fed Act — did not extend universal free lunch for the coming school year.

An estimated 10 million children now no longer have access to free lunch, according to the Agriculture Department, because their parents are above, or in many cases just barely over, the poverty line.

In addition, low-income parents who may qualify must go back to filling out forms and applying for free or reduced lunch — an often onerous process.

"It is a barrier to have to fill out a form. Some parents are very busy and have a lot going on. Others, like immigrant families, might not speak English and don't really know how to navigate the system," Arreaza said. "Now they have to figure out how to fill out these forms, how and where to turn them in —  all of that it's going to impact those families so much more."

The elimination of universal free lunch also makes it possible for schools to increase the cost of lunch due to inflation and global supply chain issues.

"In addition to kids losing free lunch, some families may have to pay even more when they're already struggling so much right now," Arreaza explained. "Parents want to love, care and support their kids, but when we take things away, like free school lunch, and make it even more expensive for them to make lunch, it's really hard for parents to care for their kids."

How parents and children will be impacted

"I've looked into it and at our income level, we would not have qualified prior and we don't qualify now," said Williams, the mom of two in Michigan. "We save $100 a month by not having to buy and pack our kids lunches — that's going to be a hit. But really, in my mind, the bigger savings from the free lunch program was just not having to worry about it."

According to a new survey of 500 parents from ParentsTogether Action, nine out of 10 parents said rising prices and the end of the 2021 monthly Child Tax Credit payments has made it harder for them to make ends meet.

The same survey found that 41% of parents had to get a new job or work more hours in order to pay their bills, and 48% said they could no longer afford enough food for their family.

In 2020, an estimated 6.1 million children lived in food-insecure households and did not have an adequate amount of food to eat, according to the USDA.

"When kids are hungry in school, it just completely affects everything that happens in the classroom," Arreaza said. "It's much harder to focus, to listen and to pay attention and behave as a teacher might want you. It affects their behavior, their academics — all of it."

Arreaza says the stigma of free or reduced lunch was eliminated when universal free lunch was implemented. When every child had access to free lunch, those who qualified for free or reduced lunch prior to the pandemic were not "othered."

"We've heard from teachers, nurses and parents that it's also an equity issue — for kids to not feel that shame or that embarrassment of having to get free and reduced lunch when everyone gets it," she added.

‘It’s wrong to put a price tag on well-being’

Natalie Sandoval, 44, is a graduate student and single mom to 8-year-old twins living in Southern California. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was a married stay-at-home mom who made her children's school lunches.

Her children are, as she described, "high functioning autistic" and picky eaters, so when she packed her children's lunch she was making the same meal every day. After returning to school, she says her sons actually began sampling new foods because everyone had access to free lunch.

"They were like, 'Oh! I get to try what everybody else is having!' because there were more kids eating the same thing," Sandoval told TODAY. "They were trying new foods every day. For me, that was fantastic — we have gone from eating only five different food items to 10 or 12, and that was something we couldn't achieve in occupational therapy."

Sandoval says she doesn't know if her children qualify for free or reduced lunch, though she believes her family will now that she's a single mom also in school.

"If we qualify, it would help tremendously. They need their lunch every day and the money I'm not spending on school lunches I'm saving and using to help pay for other things they may need," she said. "If I need to start making them lunch, I need to get up half an hour earlier so I can prepare lunch on top of making sure they have their breakfast. Just that little half hour of sleep helps me, because I stay up late studying."

Sandoval was a teacher before she had children. She remembers how "very sad" it was to have students come to her and say they were "short 50 cents" and ask to borrow money in order to purchase lunch. She said she often went to the lunchroom with her students to buy them lunch and put money into their account.

"Part of being in school is getting a nutritional meal, and students can't learn if they're hungry," she added. "It's wrong to put a price tag on well-being and education."

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