- At the start of the pandemic, Congress made school lunches free and universal. This will end on June 30.
- The House has called for an extension of the release, but Republicans in the Senate have abstained.
- School lunch staff are worried about the impact on children if the refusals end.
Before the pandemic, Jennifer Capinus, who is in charge of food for a school district in rural Wisconsin, turned out to be doing something she hated: playing a debt collector.
She called her parents every week because of debts their children had accumulated while buying school lunch. Many parents who would qualify for free meals or discounted meals have never filled out applications for a number of personal reasons.
Although “fortunately” the district will never take food from students, Capinus said, she will have to call parents and send letters to get them to pay off a debt they “honestly can’t afford to pay.” .
Capinus is not alone: Leah Botko, director of food services in Massachusetts, said there are about $ 20,000 in unpaid student debts in her area each year.
Then the pandemic struck. In 2020, the government took several emergency measures to keep Americans financially afloat, from incentive checks to increased unemployment benefits. This included waivers that make school lunch free for every K-12 student.
The refusals meant that the children would not have a debt for school lunch or would be ashamed to be free or for a reduced lunch – and that lunch providers could expand the food they offered to their students.
But Republicans are blocking a renewal of denials, marking a potential end to the June 30 program.
In the Kapinus district, where food is now free, participation has increased significantly. It is the same with Botko, whose program has fed about 40 children a day. They now feed at least 280 a day.
The more children ate, the more compensation they received from the federal government. The Kapinus area could afford to “feed its children better and healthier” by buying local meat and fresh produce. They were able to hire staff and replace equipment. Botko partnered with a local farm down the street to buy produce.
This helps the local economy, Botko said, and helps parents get more involved in school lunches.
“They no longer think of school lunch as something that comes out of the freezer. It’s coming right down the street, “she said.
Congress expanded the program once in 2021, ensuring that nearly 12 million children who did not have enough food at some point in the pandemic could receive food at school. But lawmakers – especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – have chosen not to renew the universal agenda as part of a spending package passed in March that left the government open.
However, a bipartisan agreement has been reached to renew a limited exemption program, which will ensure that some children can still receive free meals during the summer.
“Children deserve to be healthy, they deserve to be well fed”
Some states, such as California, already have universal school lunch programs. State legislators in New York, Massachusetts and a handful of other states are trying to create their own programs, but students in most states will be missed once the federal program ends.
“You create a question of justice only on the basis of the geography of where these children live,” Mayer said.
To qualify for free meals in the 2022 school year, a family of three must earn an income of $ 29,939 or less, which is considered 130% of the federal poverty level. This is a sharp reversal of the expansion in the last two years, which has opened free lunches for all students, regardless of their family’s income.
Republicans have spoken out against the resumption of universal free lunches, arguing that this is a pandemic-era program that should not be made permanent. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has objected to the swift adoption of a bipartisan agreement to extend the reduced version of the program after June 30. But he secured some changes that allowed the Senate to accept it by sending it back to the House before Biden signed it.
“Children deserve to be healthy, they deserve to be well fed, and by extending these refusals before they expire, we can ensure that no student worries about where they will get their lunch in the summer,” the Senate said. Chuck Schumer’s majority on Thursday.
Some children have only experienced schools with free and universal meals
Some children – especially younger ones – may not even remember a time without a free lunch.
“They have already lived most of their lives in the public school during the pandemic, where the school is a guaranteed food supplier. This will disappear for them, “Jillian Meyer, director of partnerships and campaign strategies for the No Kids Hungry advocacy group, told Insider. “I don’t think they are aware of that, but I guarantee you that on the first day of school, if there is no food in front of them, then it will be a problem.”
Amy Fruing handed out some of these lunches. She worked in the library of a large suburban elementary school in Oregon and distributed library books to children through the piss window during the height of the pandemic.
She realized that families come to school at a certain time each day to get their food through the program. She changed the time in her library window to coincide with the receipt of lunch so that the children could receive their books and their lunch at the same time. During isolation, especially for students and teachers, this meant that she had to see the same people every day.
“They never had to confirm that they were students at the school,” Fruing said. “They never set a limit on how many lunches they could get and there was always a choice of healthy snacks.”
She said the program has helped destigmatize children who receive food from school. They were all treated the same – unlike what she saw growing up, where the children had different colored tickets to the cafe at reduced prices.
On Fridays, she would send families home with larger packages for dinner and other meals over the weekend.
“When the basic needs for food and shelter are not met, I think it is unconscious. This is a basic human need, “Fruing said. “I know there are a lot of people who think, oh, people have to stay up, and that’s the land of opportunity and there are so many jobs. Try telling this to a single mother with children who uses most of their money just to cover shelter. ”
Botko, the director of food services in Massachusetts, sends emails from parents asking if lunch will be free next year. She expects parents to be upset, participation to decline and to have to end their relationship with local food sources.
When he was a child, Botko qualified for lunch at a reduced price. However, she never took advantage of this because she was ashamed. History can repeat itself when failures pass.
“I have a feeling the kids will be ashamed to have lunch again,” she said.