Families Struggle as Pandemic Program Offering Free School Meals Ends

Like other parents, April Vazquez, a school nutrition specialist in Sioux Falls, S.D., 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 like Ms. 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, Ms. Vazquez is hardly alone. The number of students receiving free lunches decreased by about a third, to around 18.6 million in October, the latest month with available data. In comparison, about 20.3 million students ate free in October 2019, before the pandemic. That drop can be attributed to several factors, like 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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 percent. Average hourly wage growth in that same period grew by 15.1 percent. Consumer prices, though, have risen by 15.4 percent, and food prices by 20.2 percent, surpassing wage growth.

In the Sioux Falls School District — where Ms. Vazquez works and where her children attend school — about 41 percent of children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch this school year, compared with about 49 percent 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.

“The income eligibility guidelines are just not keeping pace with inflation, and families are barely making ends meet. So what we’re seeing is a lot of people are saying, ‘I can’t believe I don’t qualify as I always did.’ If they are making a dollar more, or whatever, that will do it,” Ms. Anderson 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 Ms. 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.

Megan, a mother of three school-aged children in Ms. Helton’s district who asked to be identified only by her first name because of privacy concerns, said that she had grown accustomed to the program. So when the school pressed her for money owed for unpaid lunches, “it was a shocker.”

By the end of the fall semester, she had racked up $136 in debt.

When Megan learned that holiday donations to the school district had wiped out that sum, “I just melted into a puddle because when you’re down to that last $100, the last thing you want to have to worry about is whether your kids are eating or not,” she said through tears.

It is difficult to estimate how many students are now going hungry. But school officials and nutrition advocates point to proxy measurements — debt owed by families who cannot afford a school meal, for example, or the number of applications for free and reduced-price meals — as evidence of unmet need.

In a survey released this month by the School Nutrition Association, 96.3 percent of school districts reported that meal debt had increased. Median debt rose to $5,164 per district through November, already higher than the $3,400 median reported for the entire school year in the group’s 2019 survey.

At school, Ms. Vazquez described witnessing children sitting in the cafeteria with packed lunches consisting of only a bag of chips or an apple. Others have inched toward the cash register with a lunch tray, a look of fear and recognition flashing across the “kid’s eyes when they see the computer, like, ‘Yeah, I know I’m negative, but I want to eat,’” she said.

“You see other kids struggle and knowing, hey, I’m in the same boat,” she added. “I know exactly what you’re going through.”

The end of universal school meals has led fewer schools to participate in the program overall: About 88 percent of public schools are operating a meal program this school year, compared with 94 percent in the previous school year, and 27.4 million children were eating a school lunch in October, compared with about 30 million in May, the last month of the school year with the program in place.

That can create a vicious cycle in which lower participation translates to higher costs per meal, forcing schools to raise the price of a meal and squeezing out even more families, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, which routinely talks to schools about their nutrition programs.

Schools and families alike face other administrative and financial complications as school officials grapple with soaring wholesale costs and labor shortages, highlighting other challenges in increasing participation. Now officials must process paperwork to verify income eligibility, devote time and personnel for debt collection and plan ahead for expected revenue and reimbursement rates.

At Prince William County Schools in Virginia, Adam T. Russo, the nutrition director, said his office has had to dedicate more resources for outreach and education to inform parents of the policy change. Already, he relies on a multilingual staff to serve the 90,000 students in his district, one of the most diverse in the state.

For many parents, he said, the process was new and potentially confusing given that universal free meals had been in place since some of their children had started school.

“If your kid was in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, this is a completely foreign process to your family,” he said. “It’s been table stakes, and we’ve pulled the tablecloth out from under our families.”

The application process, as well as the stigma associated with receiving a free or reduced-price lunch, can be prohibitive, advocates say. In 2019, even as some 29.6 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, only 22 million received one, according to research. And about 20 percent of eligible households whose children did not receive either benefit reported food insecurity.

“The effort it takes to make sure these resources actually hit those kids, for what that costs, it’s a hell of a lot easier to just say, listen, food is free,” Ms. Rodrigues said.

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 spokeswoman said.

Such an initiative has drawn widespread support, with polls showing 74 percent of voters and 90 percent 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, Minn., 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 Ms. Stewart, who asked to be identified by her maiden name. “It was amazing.”

Intent on seeing the program enacted permanently, Ms. Stewart is now lobbying the Minnesota legislature to adopt universal free schools meals statewide, a policy that the governor recently endorsed.

Under the new income guidelines, Ms. 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.”