Some families will need to add school meals into their back-to-school budgets as the federal program that provides free food for all students ends in August.
The federally assisted National School Breakfast and Lunch Program saw many changes to its services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the advent of free meals for all students not only during school hours but also to take home – no application necessary, no proof of income required.
Free meals for children 18 and younger will continue across Douglas County this summer, but Congress did not extend meal waivers through the 2022-23 school year. That means families who don’t qualify for free and reduced-price meals will be charged full price when their students return to school in August.
That will affect pocketbooks, but just how much isn’t clear yet.
When the Lawrence school board meets July 11, members are expected to finalize meal prices, according to an email from district spokesperson Julie Boyle. They’ll also continue discussions about raising student fees and the possible addition of a device fee.
Boyle declined to say whether administrators would recommend an increase in meal prices.
“We anticipate the administration’s recommendation to the board regarding meal prices to be available as part of the July 11 board meeting agenda materials.”
School boards set meal prices, and the Lawrence board last approved meal rates in August 2019. Full prices for breakfast ranged from $1.75 to $1.90 for K-12 students and $2.75 to $3 for lunch. And those who qualified for reduced-price meals could buy breakfast for 30 cents and lunch for 40 cents.
During a time of rising inflation and supply chain disruptions, parents polled during free summer lunch distribution at the Lawrence Public Library on Wednesday said they expected food prices to increase at schools just as they had at grocery stores and markets.
“We’re now looking into more healthy eating with less meat because meat has inflated so high,” said Cassandra Beebe, a Lawrence mother of six with another child on the way. “We are participants of WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), and so it’s amazing getting all of the free produce. And programs like this help a lot for people with a lot of kids and bigger families.”
As a recipient of Food Assistance, Beebe’s four school-age children automatically qualify for free school meals. Referred to as direct certification, that process allows Beebe and others who receive Food Assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or certain Medicaid benefits — as well as foster children — to bypass the application.
“As of July 1, our schools make matches and get those letters out to parents early before school starts,” said Cheryl Johnson, child nutrition and wellness director for the Kansas State Department of Education.
All other families will need to complete the free and reduced-price lunch application, which districts cannot distribute until Friday, July 1. Boyle said the Lawrence school district would share a link to the online application after the board approved meal prices July 11.
“It is imperative that families complete the free and reduced-price meal application before the start of the school year. The district will accept applications throughout the school year, so if a family’s income changes, they may apply for benefits at any time. Families applying for free and reduced-price meals should also complete the Consent for Disclosure Form for applicable school fee waivers.”
Free meals for all proved to be popular in the district last year, according to figures provided by Julie Henry, the district’s newly named director of nutrition and wellness.
Breakfast distribution increased approximately 38% during the 2021-22 school year compared to pre-pandemic levels, Henry said via email. Statistics for lunches also showed an increased participation rate of between 14 and 15% across schools.
Boyle explained how the district expected current supply chain issues and rising costs to affect meals this fall.
“Vendors have stopped producing some popular items. The district has run into shortages of some products,” Boyle said. “Food Service is short-staffed. With a smaller staff, we have to adjust menus accordingly.”
The district serves breakfast and lunch at all of its schools and is now hiring food service staff at multiple schools, Boyle added.
“Many of these positions work well for individuals who want their work schedule to coordinate with the school schedule so they can pick up and drop off their children. Full- and part-time positions are available.”
Interested individuals may learn more and apply here.