Families are struggling with pandemic programs that stop free school meals. - Liberty

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Families are struggling with pandemic programs that stop free school meals.


Polls show broad support for free school meals programs worldwide, with 74% of voters and 90% of parents supporting them. Alyssa Shuker

Like the rest of her parents, April cuts out her coupons, buys in bulk, and cuts down on outings and restaurant meals, according to Vasquez, a nutrition expert at a school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. spent on she is declining I'm holding back. Still, preparing hot lunches for her three kids in the school cafeteria is now a treat that must be carefully planned on a budget.

With waivers that guarantee free school meals to about 30 million students across the United States while the pandemic expires, families like Vasquez's are barely above the income threshold. I lost my eligibility for federal programs that allow children to eat for free.

Vasquez is not alone when pandemic-era aid programs expire and inflation hits record highs. In October, the most recent month for which data are available, the number of students receiving free lunches fell by about a third to approximately 18.6 million. By contrast, in her pre-pandemic October 2019, about 20.3 million students were eating for free. This decline can be attributed to several factors, including the brink of eligibility, the lack of awareness that the program ends before the start of the school year, and the overall low number of schools participating.

"At the most difficult moment American families have seen in this generation, we are making things very difficult," said co-founder and chairman of the Parents' Union Network of America. Kelly Rodriguez said.

It's hard for Vazquez to return to the reality of having to pay for school lunches in total, and her kids mostly bring their lunches. (Bagels, cream cheese, and apples are typical, but grapes and strawberries are too expensive and rare.)

"It breaks my heart to know that my children will not be emancipated or reduced," she said.

The number of students who received free lunches last October fell by about a third to about 18.6 million. Amber Ford

Her children wobbled year after year and never qualified for free or discounted meals, but when she got a full-time job as a nutritionist in August 2021, her salary was enough for her family. was just sufficient to exceed the income threshold for allowances... meals.

Wages for some parents have increased and standards for free or discounted meals have expanded, but these benefits do little to mitigate the impact of rising food costs.

From 2019-20 to this year, income eligibility for free and discounted meals increased by approximately 7.8%. Average hourly earnings growth increased him 15.1% over the same period. However, consumer prices rose her 15.4% and food prices rose her 20.2%, outpacing wage growth.

In the Sioux Falls school district where Vasquez works and her children attend, about 41% of children will be eligible for free or discounted lunches this year, compared to about 49% before the pandemic. said her nutrition director. Gay Anderson. Some parents say they should take half a week off work to eat for free.

"The income eligibility guidelines just haven't kept up with inflation, and families are barely making ends meet," said Anderson.

At a school in Wellington Waver Village in northeast Ohio, nutrition director Andrea Helton said about 50 families in a district of about 1,000 students were denied the program. That's why I missed the $100 gross income deadline," lamented the single mother.

But Helton said, "I am heartbroken that there is nothing I can do."

Andrea Helton is the Director of Nutrition at Wellington Waver Village School in Northeast Ohio. Amber Ford

Megan, a mother of three school-aged children in the Helton school district, asked to identify only her first name due to privacy concerns, but said she had become accustomed to the program. . So when the school forced her to pay for her unpaid lunch, she was "shocked".

When Megan learned that the Holidays her season donation to the school district had run out of that amount, she said, "I melted in a puddle. The last time she was down to $100, my kids You don't have to worry about eating or not eating." she tearfully said.

It is difficult to estimate the number of students suffering from hunger today. But school officials and nutrition advocates point to alternatives as evidence of unmet needs.

In a survey released this month by the School Nutrition Association, 96.3% of school districts reported an increase in food debt. His median debt rose to $5,164 per district by November, already above the median reported $3,400 for the entire academic year in a 2019 group survey. rice field.

The end of universal school feeding has resulted in fewer schools participating in the overall program. 88% of his public schools have a school lunch program this year. Alyssa Shuker

At school, Vazquez said he saw children sitting in cafeterias eating nothing but potato chips and a bag of apples for lunch. Some people even bring their bento to the cash register. A look of fear and recognition.

"I know exactly what you're going through." I have. "

The end of universal school feeding has resulted in fewer schools participating in the overall program. About 88% of public schools have school feeding programs this year, with 27.4 million children eating in school, compared with 94% last year. His lunch in October compared to about 30 million in May, the last month of the school year in which the program is running.

He said that this could lead to a vicious circle of low participation rates, resulting in higher costs per meal, forcing schools to raise food prices and potentially excluding more families. said. Hood recounted his research. Behavior Center Crystal said. Fitzsimmons says. their nutrition program.

Schools and families face other administrative and financial challenges as school officials grapple with rising wholesale costs and labor shortages, highlighting other obstacles to increased participation. Today, officials must process paperwork to verify income eligibility, dedicate time and resources to debt collection, and plan expected income and reimbursement rates.

At Prince's William County School in Virginia, Adam T. Russo, his nutrition director, said his office was devoting more resources to outreach and education to inform parents of the policy change. He said he was. I was told it was necessary. He relies on multilingual staff to serve his 90,000 students in his school district, which is one of the most diverse school districts in the state.

Adam T. Russo relies on multilingual staff to serve the district's 90,000 students. Alyssa Shuker

For many parents, the process is new and can be confusing, he said.

"If your child was in kindergarten, first grade, or second grade, this is a completely irrelevant process for your family. I pulled out the tablecloth.

The application process and the stigma associated with receiving free or discounted lunches can be excessive, advocates say. According to the survey, about 29.6 million students were eligible for free or discounted meals in 2019, but only 22 million received them. About 20% of eligible households whose children do not receive either benefit report food insecurity.

The universal free school meals program has cut federal spending on school nutrition programs, increasing it to $28.7 billion from $18.7 billion in fiscal 2019, according to data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. A spokeswoman said the agency did not have a formal estimate of the costs of enacting the policy permanently.

Such initiatives have widespread support, with 74% of voters and 90% of parents supporting the idea in polls, but federal law is unlikely. Apparently. Republicans in Congress opposed extending the policy forever, arguing that free meals should only be provided to the poorest and pandemic-era policies must finally end. . . Is doing.

Still, some states and parents are being called upon to take action. For Amber Stewart, the mother of her five children in Duluth, Minnesota, the program is a lifesaver.

Before the pandemic, when her family was obliged to eat, her daughter received her cold cheese sandwich and carton of milk, letting her classmates know they couldn't afford a hot meal. . I was. The stern letter demanded repayment and warned of the consequences.

Ms. Stewart asked to reveal her maiden name. "It was amazing."

Stewart wants the program to be enacted permanently and is now lobbying the Minnesota legislature to adopt universal free school meals statewide.

Under the new income guidelines, the Stewart children will have access to discounted meals.

This is very important, she said, because even after going to the food bank every week, it's still not enough to live on.

"Our money is tight," she said. "With groceries and all expenses, we barely make it."