ESSEX, Vt. (AP) — Before the pandemic, there was no room in the budget for Kate Murphy’s children to buy school lunch. She and her husband bought in bulk and packed lunch bags at home. So the free school meals that have been made available to students across the country amid the crisis have brought welcome relief, especially as her husband lost his job last year at a bakery business. which closed its doors.
The free meals meant the family in Essex Junction, Vermont, had less to worry about.
“We make too much money (literally just a few dollars) to qualify for free or reduced lunches and other food-related benefits, but not enough to feel truly financially secure,” Murphy, a mother of four and trust company director, said via email.
Pandemic-era federal aid that made school lunches available free to all public school students — regardless of family income level — is ending, raising fears of effects in the school year ahead for families already struggling with rising food and fuel costs.
For families already strained by inflation and the end of other federal aid such as expanded child tax credits, advocates say cutting aid could mean turning more frequently to food banks.
“Families across the country are facing a very difficult reality of having to choose between feeding their children or filling up their gas tanks or buying medicine,” said Vince Hall, government relations manager for Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks.
The rules are expected to return to what they were before the coronavirus pandemic with families eligible based on required income levels to ask their children to receive a free or reduced price lunch. Schools in low-income areas will be allowed to serve free breakfast and lunch to everyone, as before.
Since lifting the eligibility requirement during the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunch programs, has seen the number of participating students soar.
In the last school year, about 30 million children a day received free meals, up from 20 million before the pandemic, said Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
During summer meal distributions, 1.3 billion meals and snacks were distributed nationwide in fiscal year 2020 at a cost of $4.1 billion, an eight-fold increase from to the previous year in terms of meals and cost, according to the USDA.
A bill passed in Congress last week and signed by President Joe Biden on Saturday aims to keep the rules for summer meal programs as they have been during the pandemic so venues can operate in any which community that needs it, rather than where there is a high concentration of low-income children and offer take-out meals. It also offers schools the ability to substitute certain types of food without being fined if they encounter supply chain issues.
Supporters say the legislation will bring relief, but the timing has caused confusion over summer meal distribution plans.
“It is disappointing that the extension of summer waivers comes so late that for the most part they will not be able to stem the dramatic loss of summer meal sites that is occurring this summer,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
For the next school year, some states have taken the initiative to maintain free school meals for all students.
California and Maine made universal meals permanent last year and Vermont is continuing free meals for all public school students for another year using excess state funding for education. In Massachusetts, House lawmakers included $110 million in the budget to extend universal school meals for another year, but the Senate version did not. Now both versions are before a conference committee. In Colorado, the legislature passed a bill asking voters in November whether to fund free universal breakfast and lunch in schools.
At Albert D. Lawton Middle School in Vermont on a recent day, eighth graders picked up freshly made pizza and Caesar salad on their platters and had lunch with friends around round tables. Students said it was important to continue providing free meals to all students.
“Not everyone has the same situation at home and it’s hard to learn at school when you’re very hungry, so I think free lunch is easier for everyone,” said student Ethan Pringle.
“Our kids have so much to worry about these days, and food shouldn’t be one of them,” Murphy said.