Families struggle as pandemic program offering free school meals ends
Students eat lunch at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, Va. on Jan. 11, 2023. A federal benefit guaranteeing free school meals to millions more students has expired as food prices have risen. Many families are feeling the pinch.
By LINDA QIU
Like other parents, April Vazquez, a school nutrition specialist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is cutting coupons, buying in bulk and forgoing outings and restaurant meals. Still, a hot lunch in the school cafeteria for her three children is now a treat she has to carefully plan in her budget.
The expiration of waivers that guaranteed free school meals for nearly 30 million students across the United States during the pandemic has meant that families such as Vazquez’s who earn just over the income threshold no longer qualify for a federal program allowing children to eat at no cost.
As pandemic-era assistance programs lapse and inflation reaches record highs, Vazquez is hardly alone. The number of students receiving free lunches decreased by about one-third, to about 18.6 million in October, the latest month with available data. In comparison, about 20.3 million students ate for free in October 2019, before the pandemic. That drop can be attributed to several factors, such as being on the cusp of eligibility, lack of awareness that the program had ended by the start of the school year and fewer schools participating in the program overall.
“It’s just making things a hell of a lot harder at the most difficult moment that I think American families have seen in a generation,” said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union network.
For Vazquez, returning to a reality where she must pay full price for a school meal — about $3 or $4 for each child — is trying, and most days, her children bring a packed lunch. (Bagels, cream cheese and apples are typical; grapes and strawberries are rare because they are too expensive.)
“It’s painful to know that my kids aren’t going to get free or reduced,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Vazquez worked part-time as a special education assistant and her children teetered between qualifying for free or reduced-price meals year to year. But when she took a full-time job as a nutritionist in August 2021, her salary was just enough to bump her family above the income threshold for either benefit: about $42,000 annually for free meals for a family of five and $60,000 for reduced-price meals.
“That was actually a worry when I applied for this position, because you don’t know what’s going to happen — am I going to get disqualified for this?” she said, adding that she ultimately took the job with a view toward long-term financial stability.
Even as some parents have seen their wages increase and the criteria for free and reduced-price meals expand, those boons have done little to blunt the impact of rising food costs.
From the 2019-20 school year to this school year, the income eligibility for free and reduced-price meals has increased by about 7.8%. Average hourly wage growth in that same period grew by 15.1%. Consumer prices, though, have risen by 15.4%, and food prices by 20.2%, surpassing wage growth.
In the Sioux Falls School District — where Vazquez works and where her children attend school — about 41% of children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch this school year, compared with about 49% before the pandemic, said its nutrition director, Gay Anderson. Some parents have remarked that they would be “better off missing half a week’s work to get that free meal,” she said.
At Wellington Exempted Village Schools, in northeastern Ohio, Andrea Helton, the nutrition director, described denying the program to nearly 50 families in a school district of about 1,000 students. She recalled a single mother who lamented, “I missed the cutoff for reduced meals by $100 of gross income.”
But Helton said, “There’s nothing I can do, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Families are also struggling to navigate a maze of new rules or, unaware that the program had ended, contending with having to pay for meals that had once been free.
The universal free school meal program pushed the federal cost of school nutrition programs from $18.7 billion in the 2019 fiscal year to $28.7 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, according to data from the Agriculture Department, which administers the program. The department does not have an official estimate of the cost of permanently enacting the policy, a spokesperson said.
Such an initiative has drawn widespread support, with polls showing 74% of voters and 90% of parents favoring the idea, but federal enactment seems unlikely. Republican lawmakers in Congress oppose permanently extending the policy, arguing that free meals should serve only the neediest and that pandemic-era policies must eventually end.
Still, some states — and some parents — have been spurred to take action. For Amber Stewart, a mother of five in Duluth, Minnesota, the program was lifesaving.
Before the pandemic, when the family owed money for meals, her daughter would receive a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk, signaling to classmates she could not afford the hot meal. Stern letters demanded repayment and warned of consequences.
“Then the pandemic rolled around and everybody was eligible for the free meals, and they delivered it or you could go pick it up,” said Stewart, who asked to be identified by her maiden name. “It was amazing.”
Intent on seeing the program enacted permanently, Stewart is now lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to adopt universal free school meals statewide, a policy that the governor recently endorsed.
Under the new income guidelines, Stewart’s children now qualify for reduced-price meals. And because of a state law that covers the fees normally owed by families in that category, they are not charged the 35 or 50 cents for breakfast or lunch.
That has been crucial, she said, because even after weekly trips to the food bank, she does not have nearly enough to get by.
“Our money is really tight,” she said. “With the cost of groceries and everything, we’re barely making it.”