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Students again rack up school lunch debt after pandemic-era waiver expires

Sweet potato fries, milk cartons and a chicken sandwich sit on a lunch tray on top of metal rungs in the foreground. In the background, a pair of hands touches a meal on the tray.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A student puts food on a cafeteria tray at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Melissa Wolfe would love for her kids to get free school meals each day at Parma City School District in northeast Ohio.

“$3.50 a day times two kids. You know, that's a lot for a working family,” Wolfe says.

For the first two years of the pandemic, Wolfe’s kids got free meals through federal waivers that provided free breakfast and lunch for all students at public schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. But they expired last summer, after House Republicans blocked a proposed extension.

So Wolfe went to Capitol Hill earlier this year with the Parma Council PTA, joining other PTAs from across the country to advocate for increased access to free school lunches for all students.

“Basically, we were sitting in the senators' offices and explaining to them why our kids need to have these meal vouchers in place,” Wolfe says.

Bob Gorman, who supervised the school district nutrition services until December, has seen the impact of the loss of waivers firsthand: fewer students getting school-provided food.

“Our lunch numbers are down about 32%, while our breakfast numbers are down almost 45%,” Gorman says.

And it’s not just Parma. On the other side of Ohio in Riverside, a suburb of Dayton, Tom Zsembik, the food service supervisor at Mad River Local Schools, saw a similar drop.

For the first month of school, his district covered all the students' lunches so that everyone could eat for free. But now, kids are back to full price lunch, and the district is still figuring out how to make sure their kids don’t go hungry.

“[We've asked ourselves] ‘How are we going to do this? Do we all contribute five bucks per week? Do I pick up the cost?’ We're just trying to juggle that,” Zsembik says.

Public schools across the country have seen numbers of meals provided to kids plummet since the waivers expired. Faced with hungry kids, politicians and advocates are seeking solutions that could once again mean free meals for all.

How the pandemic changed school meal programs

Before the pandemic, parents had to fill out an application for students to receive free or reduced-price school lunch.

To be eligible for free lunch, a kid's household income has to be at or below the national poverty level, about $36,000 for a family of four.

If the family is not eligible, the parent has to pay the full cost of lunch, which can range from $1.25 to more than $3 per day.

Early in the pandemic, the federal government waived a lot of the rules around school meals.

It increased meal reimbursement rates for school lunches and breakfasts to help schools pay for students’ food. It relieved some burdens for schools unable to meet nutrition standards due to supply chain disruptions.

Two sets of hands, on either side of the photo, grab trays of food. In focus at the center, a woman looks on.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Cashier Marie Navarro serves lunch to students at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

The waivers additionally relaxed some school summer feeding program rules, such as allowing students to grab lunches to go. That alone increased summer meal participation in the U.S. dramatically.

And perhaps most importantly, it provided free meals to nearly all public school students.

When the provision expired this summer, President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act extending some of the waivers, but the free meals weren’t included.

How schools are re-adjusting

So starting in the fall, schools have had to go back to the old system where only income-eligible children can get free and reduced meals, and only after their parents fill out an application and have it approved.

Even for families who would qualify, the paperwork can be a barrier.

“It's a very diverse community and we have a lot of families who might not speak English or might not understand our application,” says Emily Gladish, who managed the district’s Farm to Table program and took over for Gorman as the current school nutrition supervisor in December.

Mad River Local Schools, in suburban Dayton, is similar.

“We can't even get emergency medical forms for all of our students. We still have hundreds of kids that haven’t turned that in. They’re depending on the parent to do that and some of them just do not happen,” says Tina Simpson, principal of Stebbins High School.

A woman transfers bananas from one tray to another in an industrial-looking cafeteria. A tray sits with cups of oranges and apples behind the bananas. A woman in the background transfers buns from one tray to another.
Alejandro Figueroa
Shirley Street serves fruit and vegetables at Stebbins High School in Riverside, a suburb of Dayton.

And without the free lunches, and challenges getting paperwork filled out, school meal debt is rising again.

“In our district alone we're in $10,000 student debt already, and it's just November,” Gorman, the nutrition services provider at Parma, says.

Sometimes anonymous donors, or groups of parents, will pay off the students’ lunch debt. Teachers and principals like Tina Simpson also step in to fill the gap.

“I'm not going to let a kid go hungry. I keep food in my office, actually. So I have kids stop by all the time. I've got crackers, granola bars, animal crackers, peanut butter crackers, cheese crackers,” Simpson says. “And they can get food all throughout the day.”

To prevent students from going deeper into debt, Zsembik, the food service supervisor at Simpson’s school district, says they only allow students to take two unpaid meals before they start to offer a courtesy lunch – typically a sandwich and some fruits and vegetables.

But Zsembik says that isn’t a full solution.

“Ideally it’d be that we wouldn't have to worry about it. Parents wouldn't have to worry about it, kids wouldn't have to worry about it.”

What parents and policy makers are doing about it 

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, wants to expand access to free school meals, but says there’s not an easy, immediate fix in sight.

“There is not enough pardon the adjective here, but enough appetite from Republicans to move fast on this,” Brown says.

Beyond expanding the free school lunch program he advocates for a broader solution: lift families out of poverty through expanding tax credits.

“We know already that the child tax credit can reduce poverty among children by 40%, we had that last year and then the Republicans killed it,” Brown says.

Another strategy is to expand who qualifies for free and reduced-price school lunch. Another: revamp the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Through that program, schools with more than 40% low-income students get free lunch for all of their kids.

Big urban districts with high levels of poverty often easily qualify for it. But nearly three quarters of all public schools across the state don’t participate in the CEP program. Many middle-income districts, like Mad River Local, fall short of qualifying, and others, like Parma, don’t participate even though they qualify.

“For some schools that are eligible for community eligibility provision, the program is not financially sustainable,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, with the School Nutrition Association, says. “Schools have to have a high enough identified student rate for all the meals that they serve to be reimbursed at the higher, free rate.”

Basically, schools don’t get paid enough by the federal government to make it financially feasible to participate unless they have a high percentage of low-income students, around 60%.

Parma City Schools, where Wolfe’s kids attend, falls under that 60% threshold.

38% of Stebbin’s students, in Mad River Local Schools, qualify for free-and-reduced lunches.

Zsembik says if that number passes the 40% threshold, he wouldn’t hesitate to apply: he's willing to take on the financial burden.

The picture shows a cafeteria warming station with trays of chicken patties and chicken sandwiches. A man, seen through the glass, stands behind the station and reaches in for one of the sandwiches.
Alejandro Figueroa
Tom Zsembik, the food service supervisor for Mad River Local School District in Riverside, taking over the chicken sandwich station during lunch hour.

“It's a win for the whole school district. And my boss understands that and I understand that,” Zsembik said. “It's a win to educate the kids, make sure they're getting fed every day.”

Pratt-Heavner says there’s talk in Congress to lower that threshold to 25% so that more schools can be eligible. As well as increasing how much schools are reimbursed for the free meal through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act — a bill passed by Congress every five years that sets standards for programs like the National School Lunch Program.

“Free meals for all students. It's really a great equalizer,” Pratt-Heavner says. “It really eliminates stigma and makes sure that kids are not hungry and distractible.”

Still, no concrete legislation has passed the House.

Some movement toward free lunches in Ohio?

In Ohio, the state school board asked the legislature to earmark American Rescue Plan Act money for free school meals for the remainder of the school year.

Democratic State Representative Casey Weinstein says the state has the funds to do it.

“We've got really a generational opportunity in Ohio to make investments right now with a combination of access, state income tax funds, with federal funding that is expiring that we have to spend,” Weinstein says.

But no proposals have been introduced in the state legislature as of yet.

A report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows federal investments, like free school lunches, early in the pandemic lifted millions out of poverty.

Anti-hunger advocates, parents and some politicians see the last two years as a pilot for what universal free school meals could look like.

“When school is offering education to all students for free, offering free bus transportation to school textbooks, school meals are just as important to learning as that ride to school. And it should be part of the school day,” Pratt-Heavner says.

For now, though, parents like Melissa Wolfe in Parma will need to figure out how to pay for kids’ meals on their own.