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The end of federal funding for universal free school lunches leaves school districts searching for alternatives

Nutrition advocates say the nationwide ‘free meals for all’ program helped address food insecurity and childhood hunger for millions during the first two years of the pandemic. But that’s going away this school year.
Shelley Schlender
The nationwide ‘free meals for all’ program implemented during the pandemic helped address food insecurity and childhood hunger for millions over the past two years. Now that program has ended, school districts are looking for alternatives

Nutrition advocates say the nationwide ‘free lunch for all’ program helped address food insecurity and childhood hunger for millions during the first two years of the pandemic, but that is going away this school year.

Alysha Packard, Director of Child Nutrition for Grand County Schools in Utah, says now that Congress has decided that funding free school meals for all is no longer a priority, the school districts are back to the pre-pandemic system.

"So this year we're going back to the traditional model for school lunches where we have free and reduced, or full pay students," she said.

Now, families who are above certain federal income thresholds will again have to pay for their children's lunches.

And experts say that can be tricky in Moab, where the federal income thresholds don't necessarily reflect the cost of living here.

Jeremy Spaulding, Grand County Schools, Community Coordinator, says many in the community still struggle to make ends meet.

"Wages have gone up considerably in town. The other side of it is, rents have also gone up considerably over the last few years," he said.

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the average monthly wage in Grand County has gone up by about $500 in the last two years.

That could be enough to bump a family from qualifying for free and reduced lunch, but not enough to comfortably afford the meals.

Alysha Packard says the schools need to fill in this gap of those families who have always qualified before, but are now making $20 to $21 an hour, and don't qualify for free and reduced lunch.

"The challenge is that they're not making enough to live comfortably. And so adding the extra expense of school lunch is still a considerable expense over the course of the year, especially not having had to budget for that for the last two years," she said.

The Grand County School District has no plans to increase meal prices this year, they're the same as they were in 2020, about $2 to $3 per meal.

But this cost can add up.

At full price, school meals run about $450 to over $600 for one student for the entire school year.

"We've already had one parent reach out to us. This person has four kids in school and doesn't qualify. And that burden is going to be about $2,000 over the year. I mean, that's a high cost," said Jeremy Spaulding.

In the early days of the pandemic, cafeteria workers boarded buses, dropping off free meals to children at different locations around town.

That free program had a high participation rate in Grand County.

When schools returned to in-person learning, they saw 70% of students continuing to eat free lunch. For Packard, this was an absolute dream.

"I cannot tell you how big of a blessing having free lunch is. Free lunch is awesome. I think it really relieves pressure on our families. I mean, you have so much other things to think about, like, do we have shoes and pencils and all of this stuff for your kids? And to not have one more thing to think about? 'Did I send my kid with lunch money today? Is my kid going to eat lunch today?' To not have to think about that is huge. And to be able to fill that gap for the last two years has been absolutely phenomenal," she said.

Packard expects the return to the old way of doing things will be a bumpy transition.

She's worried because she remembers what it was like before.

"I've heard students in the past say, 'oh, well, my mom doesn't think I should eat lunch today because we can't afford it.' And that's a really tough relationship to have to impose on students and their parents," she said.

School district representatives say they will never turn away a student who is hungry.

But Packard is concerned more families are going to experience these difficult dynamics.

They first have to get used to paying for their child's meals again, and many may find out they no longer qualify for free and reduced lunch.

This puts the schools in a tough position.

The Grand County school District has set up a donation fund to pay for any student's outstanding meal balance.

They're asking for community help to pay for kids' lunches.

"So it's kind of a scary place to be," said Packard.

And Moab might not be alone here.

There are plenty of communities where wages may have increased, but housing costs might be double or triple the national average.

"We know that districts in St. George have a similar sort of style to (what) we do. Maybe in areas like Park City and those tourism based districts, wages have gone up to reflect worker shortages within tourist areas, and so we're gonna see the same problem in some areas of the state. And I think that we're gonna see that across the west in areas that look like we do," said Jeremy Spaulding.

Before the pandemic Spaulding says about half of Grand County students qualified for free and reduced lunch. They expect much less to qualify now, but they need families to apply to know for sure. They're trying to gather data so they can help change the standard.

"So if we encourage parents to sign up for this and we can show a difference from two years ago to now districtwide, we can show that the program isn't really working the way that it's set up. And eventually we could potentially petition the state to say, this doesn't work for Utah, and it doesn't work for our tourist community, where the wages have to be at a certain level for people to be able to even work here," he said.

Eligibility for free and reduced lunch not only affects meal time, it also gets students fee waivers for sports discounts on college applications and allows them to receive home internet access at a reduced rate.

For Grand County, funding related to free and reduced lunch has paid for student chromebooks and helped with grants that teachers and administrators apply for.

"You wouldn't think that one thing would really have that kind of domino effect, but it does," said Spaulding.

Nationwide, school food and nutrition advocates want to address this question of free and reduced lunch eligibility at the White House's September conference on food and hunger.

They say this pandemic related free meal experiment has done a lot for the country's students.

Advocates will point to studies on free meals helping to increase school performance and reduce behavior problem.

Spaulding believes it also reduces stigma.

"If everyone and their sister can eat free lunch at school. It's just what happens. There's no question of, 'oh, I can't afford it. 'There's no question of, 'I've gotta, I have a negative balance on my account.' There's none of that stuff. It's just, you go to school and you get to eat. If you want to have hot lunch, you can have it. And so it reduces a difference between students, which is always a positive," said Spaulding.

Grand County School District has staff to help families navigate the free and reduced lunch application.

They say families who do not have traditional housing, those living in an RV hotel, or even staying with friends or relatives, can qualify for free meals, regardless of income.

This story from KZMUwas shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, including Aspen Public Radio.

Molly Marcello