Even though Maine has secured universal school meals for another year, Jeanne Reilly, a school nutrition director in the state, is still bracing for the next school year to be challenging in her district as supply chain issues and labor shortages persist.
But Jessica Gould, a school nutrition director in Colorado, where federal waivers permitting universal meals are set to end this school year, expects to face those same challenges and more.
In several states, momentum has been building to secure universal school meals after districts nationwide benefited the past two years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pandemic-era waiver authority to provide free meals to all students regardless of income. The June 30 deadline is nearing for Congress to extend the USDA’s ability to keep universal meals and other waivers assisting school nutrition programs with supply chain woes.
If the waivers do not continue, families nationwide will have to start paying again for breakfast and lunch unless their children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Recently, however, the Vermont state legislature passed a bill funding universal school meals for the next school year at a cost of $29 million. In Colorado, state lawmakers approved a measure allowing voters to decide in November if they want a universal school meal program starting in 2023. The House of Representatives in Massachusetts also passed a budget including $110 million to fund universal school meals for one year, as the state’s Senate debates its final budget proposal.
Still filling out paperwork
Even with universal school meals continuing in Maine, Reilly, a school nutrition director for Windham Raymond School District RSU14, said students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals will still have to fill out applications.
That's because the state will pay for families who don’t qualify, and the USDA will pay the costs for families who do, Reilly said, so the state needs to know how many students it will have to cover under the new policy.
Reilly is already beginning to strategize how to encourage families to fill out applications when their children will receive a free meal anyway next school year. On top of that, families have not been required under federal pandemic waivers to fill out free or reduced-price meal applications for the past two years.
“They already know their children are getting a meal for free, so the paperwork becomes to them not important,” Reilly said. “When to us, really to make the funding model work and to ensure the funds that the state has budgeted lasts as long as possible, it’s really essential we capture all of those families in the proper category.”
Gould, a nutrition services director for Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, is asking families qualified for free and reduced-price meals to begin their application process this school year. Parents who previously qualified will have a 30-day grace period from accruing meal debt at the beginning of the next school year, she said, in case families don’t remember to fill out their application in time.
But, Gould said, “It’s not going to be a fail-safe.”
At the moment, Gould is working with parent liaisons and principals to inform families new to the district, in particular, about the free and reduced-price meals program.
Upping meal prices
To keep up with inflation and rising food costs, Gould expects prices to increase by 50 to 75 cents per school meal next year in her district. This will be a challenge, considering prices haven't risen for the past two years given the federal universal meal waiver, she said.
“It’s going to be a sticker shock for sure for some of our families,” she said.
While no students will be charged for meals in Reilly’s district in Maine, she said she understands how difficult it will be for districts in other states to no longer have universal school meals. It won’t be an easy transition for families, she said, considering they received free meals for the previous two years.
“Districts will have to raise the prices, and that’s going to be a tough message to communicate to families,” Reilly said.
Benefits of universal meals
The other federal waivers expiring June 30 — assisting school meal programs with addressing labor shortages and supply chain issues — should continue as well, Reilly said, because these struggles are still ongoing due to the pandemic. On Wednesday, 25% of her district’s school nutrition staff were out, she said.
Reilly and Gould have also noticed a major plus in universal school meals during the pandemic — a surge in meal participation. In Reilly’s district, participation is 50% higher now than before the pandemic. Gould, meanwhile, saw a 60% increase in breakfasts and a 45% increase in lunches served in her district since the pandemic.
The waivers have also erased the stigma for children getting free and reduced-price meals, Gould said. As voters consider whether to support universal school meals in Colorado this November, she said it’s possible those opposed could frame school meals in a negative light.
“The concern is as we move back what that stigma is going to look like,” she said.