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Congress made school meals free for 2 years. Now, Republicans don't want to extend the program.

Juliana Kaplan,Joseph Zeballos-Roig   

Congress made school meals free for 2 years. Now, Republicans don't want to extend the program.
  • At the start of the pandemic, Congress made school lunches free and universal. That'll end June 30.
  • The House has pushed to extend the waivers, but Senate Republicans are holding them back.

Prior to the pandemic, Jennifer Kapinus, who's in charge of food for a school district in rural Wisconsin, found herself doing something she hates: playing debt collector.

Every week, she'd find herself calling parents over debts their children racked up while buying school lunch. Many parents who would qualify for free or reduced-price meals never filled out applications, for any number of personal reasons.

While "luckily" the district would never take away meals from students, Kapinus said, she would have to call parents and send out letters to get them to pay off debt they "honestly cannot afford to pay."

Kapinus isn't alone: Leah Botko, a food service director in Massachusetts, said there's about $20,000 in unpaid student debt every year in her district.

Then the pandemic hit. In 2020, the government took several extraordinary measures to keep Americans financially afloat, from stimulus checks to enhanced unemployment benefits. Included in that were waivers making school lunch free for every K-12 student.

The waivers meant that kids weren't going into school lunch debt, or dealing with the shame of being on free or reduced-price lunch — and that lunch providers could expand what food they were offering to their students.

But Republicans are blocking the renewal of the waivers, spelling a potential end for the program on June 30.

In Kapinus's district, with meals now free, participation increased greatly. Same for Botko, whose program used to feed about 40 kids a day. Now, they're feeding at least 280 daily.

The more kids they fed, the more reimbursement they got from the federal government. Kapinus's district was able to afford to "feed our kids better and healthier," buying local meat and fresh produce. They were able to staff up, and replace equipment. Botko has partnered with a local farm down the street to buy produce.

That helps the local economy, Botko said, and it helps parents get more onboard with school lunches.

"They don't think of school lunch as something that comes out of the freezer anymore. It comes right down the street," she said.

Congress extended the program once in 2021, ensuring that the nearly 12 million children who didn't have enough to eat at some point in the pandemic could get food at school. But lawmakers — and, specifically, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — opted not to renew the universal program as part of the spending package passed in March that kept the government open.

However, a bipartisan agreement was struck to renew a limited waiver program that would ensure some children are still able to get free meals through the summer.

"Kids deserve to be healthy, they deserve to be well-fed"

Some states like California already have universal school lunch programs. State lawmakers in New York, Massachusetts, and a handful of other states are attempting to establish their own programs, but students in most states will be left out once the federal program ends.

"You're creating an issue of equity just based on the geography of where these kids live," Meier said.

To qualify for free meals during the 2022 school year, a family of three needs to make an income of $29,939 or below, considered 130% of the federal poverty level. That's a sharp reversal from the expansion over the last two years, which opened up free lunches to all students regardless of their family's income.

Republicans lined up against renewing universal free lunches, arguing it's a pandemic-era program that shouldn't be made permanent. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky objected to quick passage of a bipartisan agreement to extend a scaled back version of the program past June 30. But he secured some changes that allowed the Senate to pass it, sending it back to the House before Biden signs it.

"Kids deserve to be healthy, they deserve to be well-fed, and by extending these nutrition waivers before they expire we can make sure that no student will have to worry about where they are going to get their lunch during the summer," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday.

Some kids have only experienced schools with free and universal meals

Some kids — especially younger ones — may not even remember a time without free lunch.

"They have now lived the majority of their public school life through a pandemic, where school is a guaranteed provider of meals. That's going to go away for them," Jillien Meier, the director of partnerships and campaign strategies for advocacy group No Kids Hungry, told Insider. "I don't think they're cognizant of that, but I guarantee you on the first day of school, if there isn't food in front of them, that's when it will be a problem."

Amy Frewing has handed out some of those lunches. She works in the library of a large suburban elementary school in Oregon and distributed library books to kids through a pickup window during the height of the pandemic.

She realized that families were coming to the school at a certain time every day to pick up their meals through the program. She changed her library window time to coincide with lunchtime pickup, so kids could get their books and their lunches at the same time. During a time of isolation, especially for students and teachers, it meant she got to see some of the same people every day.

"They never had to verify that they were a student of the school," Frewing said. "They never put a limit on how many lunches they could get, and it was always a selection of healthy snacks."

She said that the program helped destigmatize kids getting their meals from school. Everyone was treated the same — unlike what she saw growing up, where kids on reduced-price lunch had different colored tickets in the cafeteria.

On Fridays, she would send families home with larger packs to cover dinner and other weekend meals.

"When basic needs of food and shelter aren't being met, I think it's unconscionable. It's a basic human need," Frewing said. "I know that there's a lot of people who think that, oh, people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and this is the country of opportunity and there's so many jobs available. Try telling that to a single mom with children who is using the majority of their money just to cover shelter."

Botko, the food service director in Massachusetts, is fielding emails from parents asking if lunch will be free next year. She's anticipating parents being upset, participation going down, and having to end relationships with local food sources.

When she was a kid, Botko qualified for reduced-price lunch. She never took advantage of it, though, because she was ashamed. History could repeat itself as the waivers wind down.

"I feel like kids are going to be embarrassed to get lunch again," she said.


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