There has been such a thing as a free lunch for all Lincoln Public Schools students over the past two years.
When schools across the country closed at the pandemic’s onset in March 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the National School Lunch Program, granted waivers to make meals free indefinitely.
That was the case at LPS, where for the past two years all families have been eligible for breakfast and lunch at no cost under the USDA program, which also reimburses the district for meals served during the summer months.
But the free meals, which helped families navigate the financial uncertainties of the pandemic, are now in jeopardy.
The federal funding required to provide universal free meals across the United States was not included in the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package Congress approved earlier this month and that President Joe Biden signed into law March 11.
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The waivers are set to expire June 30, but whether the federal government will step in to extend the program is unclear. State lawmakers in California and Maine already passed legislation to continue serving free meals, and some in Congress have voiced their support for making the change permanent.
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The timing, with inflation and grocery prices soaring, is not ideal, said Alynn Sampson, vice president of operations and impact at the Food Bank of Lincoln.
“It just adds to the boiling pot of food insecurity that just continues to bubble up and almost over,” Sampson said. “We’ve all seen the increase in need, and this is just one other resource for families.”
Before the pandemic, paying for school meals fell under a three-tier system as part of the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. Families would either pay nothing, a reduced cost or full price, and the federal government would reimburse districts accordingly.
But since all students were eligible for free meals during the pandemic, the government reimbursed schools at a flat rate for each meal. At LPS, that rate is about $4.56 per lunch and $2.61 per breakfast — about $15 million so far this school year.
The higher reimbursement has allowed LPS’ nutrition services department, which operates on its own budget, to absorb the increasing cost of supplies and transportation as inflation has increased and supply-chain logjams have persisted.
“That’s our main source of revenue,” said director Andrew Ashelford. “It’s really allowed school districts to not worry about these (costs).”
On average, LPS serves about 7,500 breakfasts a day and 26,000 lunches, although the number of lunches fluctuates daily based on the menu. Before the pandemic, those numbers would hover around 6,500-7,000 daily breakfasts and 25,000 lunches, Ashelford said.
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The quality of school meals has increased significantly since federal lawmakers passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, and a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that schools often offer the healthiest meals a student has access to. That, in turn, allows students to succeed in the classroom, Ashelford said.
LPS’ food service workers played a key role in ensuring students didn’t go hungry when the pandemic first shuttered schools two years ago, providing curbside meal pick-ups across the city. LPS also provided meals during the summer, and when schools closed for three Fridays this past January and February, kitchen staff continued to serve meals to students who needed them.
The Food Bank also stepped up during the first year of the pandemic, setting up drive-thru distribution sites across the city, including at schools. The nonprofit, which served about 10 million meals a year before the pandemic, has doled out 14 million meals annually during COVID-19.
Sampson said demand for the Food Bank’s services could increase if the meal waivers indeed expire. The organization runs the weekly Backpack Program for elementary students and holds monthly food markets at middle and high schools where families can pick up food supplies. The Food Bank also provides free meals for students during the summer.
Demand for those in-school programs has actually declined during the pandemic, Sampson said. The programs were halted when visitors were barred from LPS during the 2020-21 school year, which meant families had to rely on the nonprofit’s distribution sites, and numbers haven’t recovered.
The free-meal waivers were key to tackling food insecurity during the pandemic, Sampson said, and helped all families, regardless of income level.
“Even if you’re in the middle class, you’ve seen the benefits of this,” she said.
There are just over 18,000 students enrolled in the federal free- and reduced-lunch program this year, which is down about 1,200 students from last year, according to LPS’ official enrollment figures from October.
That dip is likely attributable to the waivers for meals, but Ashelford said the district has emphasized to families the importance of still enrolling in the program if eligible because it offers other benefits, like scholarships.
Jill Podraza, who has two grandchildren at Park Middle School, would like to see the free meals continue.
Her daughter can’t work because she has to stay at home to look after another one of Podraza’s grandchildren. Not having to worry about paying for meals at school has helped her daughter weather the pandemic financially.
“To take this away, these children are our future,” Podraza said. “This is the only place they’re going to get a decent meal.”
Sampson’s hope is that the waivers are renewed, but she’s not confident that will happen. If the government doesn’t step in, the Food Bank will be ready, she said. That will include making sure things like the emergency pantries at schools, where families can pick up food, are stocked and ready to go next year.
“We hope for the best, but we’re going to plan for the worst,” she said. “We’ll find a way to continue to support these families.”
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