The children go into debt or do not eat, they are hungry

  • For two years, school meals have been free for all children thanks to pandemic-era stimulus packages.
  • When the program expires, schools charge for lunches again, resulting in unpaid bills and hungry children.
  • Some states opted to keep lunches free, which meant farm-fresh food and fed more children.

Jessica Gould worried about the student who had stopped eating.

The student’s family was struggling to afford the school lunch of about $4, racking up hundreds of dollars in balances due to the cafeteria.

“The conversation in my office was specifically, ‘If they don’t start eating in a day or two, we need to contact them and tell them, please keep eating,'” said Gould, who works as a director. for nutrition and storage in a school district just south of Denver, Colorado.

“It’s a very uncomfortable place,” she said, but that was just one of many challenges Gould and his peers are facing this year. At a school in the Gould district, more than 100 students a day came to lunch last year; on a recent visit, she said, there were fewer than ten students eating.

Sandra Schossow, director of food and nutrition for a school district in Arizona, said this school year has already been the toughest of her career. That’s because, for two years, school meals were free in America, part of the billions Congress has poured in to boost the pandemic era. But not anymore.

“Last year was amazing,” Schossow said. “Every child never had to wonder if they had enough money. Every parent never had to wonder, ‘Okay, do I let them eat two days a week because I can I only afford two days? Do I let them eat every day and just figure out how to budget in our family budget?”

Lawmakers were given the option to renew the program again for this school year, but did not include it in their March spending plan to keep government open. For parents, this means a new cost: feeding their children while they are in school. School meals are becoming increasingly expensive, causing children to accumulate negative balances in cafeterias or go hungry.

“School meals, first and foremost, are essential. I would love to see that importance grow and catch fire across our country,” School Nutrition Association president Lori Adkins, who works as a consultant in child nutrition, told Insider. for Michigan’s Oakland Schools.

Free school meals were just one element of a radically different economic platform that briefly existed in the United States. He provided additional support for workers suddenly laid off amid the pandemic – which for some meant the first time they had a living wage. He gave Americans injections of stimulus money to stay afloat, then gave parents even more in the form of monthly child tax credit checks. The supplemental poverty rate, which factors in government assistance, fell to its lowest level on record in 2021. Child poverty alone fell 46% in 2021, according to the US Census Bureau.

But the bumpy legislative waters of navigating the post-vaccine world have led to the end of all those programs. In some cases, states are picking up the pieces using their surplus budgets left over from Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic-era stimulus package. In California, Nevada, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, for example, lunch remains free, with students eating farm-fresh food in a well-equipped cafeteria. But this is not the case everywhere. As a result, a family with three kids eating a cut-price lunch is shelling out a few 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 moving them on to another meal — a cheese sandwich, with fruit, vegetables and milk.

“I hate it. I hate the whole process,” she said. “It’s been a challenge when you have to go to the cash register and say to the child, ‘Do you need the money, do you need the money, or no, you don’t have enough money for today’ today.’ So yeah, it was a tough start.”

empty cafeteria

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Rising wages mean fewer parents qualify for a free, discounted lunch, even as prices rise faster than wages

Free and discounted lunches remain an option, depending on parents’ income. To qualify for discounted meals this school year, a family of three must have an income of $42,606 or less. For completely free meals, that same family must earn $29,939 or less.

Jennifer Kapinus, who is in charge of food for a school district in rural Wisconsin, has spent the summer trying to publicize an end to free lunches. But many families didn’t notice or understand the change, she said. When school started, the lunch attendance was very high.

“It lasted about two weeks. Then I had to send notices about negative meal service balances,” she said. The number of students having lunch immediately decreased.

The families told Kapinus they weren’t eligible for free or discounted lunches, but they couldn’t afford the food.

“They choose between putting gas in their car to get to work right away or paying a school lunch bill,” Kapinus said.

Gould also faced this – she said 21% of families in her district were turned away because of their income. In one case, a family in the Gould District earned just a few hundred dollars above the line for a reduced lunch. They are currently running up debt in the cafeteria, she said.

Schossow said housing prices and the cost of living in Arizona have both skyrocketed. An increase in the state’s hourly minimum wage to $12.80 didn’t keep up with the price spike, but it made many parents now ineligible for a free, reduced lunch, whose income thresholds were decided more early this year before inflation climbed 8.3% year-on-year.

“You have families who are not eligible, who were eligible every year, but their incomes have not increased as much as the costs have increased,” she said. “So now they really can’t afford it.”

Yellow school buses

Yellow school buses

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Some states have kept lunch free — and that means more students are eating farm-fresh food

In Massachusetts, school meals are always free. For Leah Botko, director of food services in the state, that’s great. The number of children eating breakfast has only increased since last year. The district was able to continue partnerships with local farms and “try new foods that we wouldn’t necessarily try if students had to pay.” A recent spinach salad was a hit, she said, and roasted zucchini and butternut squash are both coming to the menu.

Thanks to the state program, Botko was able to hire more people, and “it’s great because it gives more jobs to the city.” She said it helped her spend her days focusing on feeding students.

“The time I used to spend chasing people for money, now I’m able to make new recipes and talk to local farms and make those connections,” Botko said.

“It builds trust with the students,” she said. “They’re not afraid of owing money. They can pick up their meal and they don’t even have to worry, did mom put money in my lunch account? Or are they going to yell at me again for being negative?”

This is in stark contrast to food service managers in states where the program has ended. They report fewer students eating at school and fewer staff. “The stigma came back as quickly as it went away,” Gould said of his Colorado districts, with kids not even wanting to eat cheaper cafeteria meals together anymore — although that’s what their parents can get away with. allow.

“I completely understand why states do what they do,” Gould said of states spending their budgets to preserve free lunches for all. “We don’t see movement and support, nationally, in a bipartisan way,”

In Wisconsin, Kapinus said it was “shocking to me that there’s a politician within our system of government who wouldn’t want universal free meals.”

“It’s the basis for doing the right thing,” she said.

Schossow, Ariz., hopes someone will do the math to figure out how to make the program cheaper, so Congress and the USDA don’t chafe at the extra $11 billion cost and could potentially reinstate free meals. .

“I feel like every member of Congress should be a cashier at a school for a day and see what it’s like,” she said.