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End of nationwide federal free lunch program has some states scrambling

During the height of the pandemic, the federal government made lunch free to all 50.6 million public school students nationwide. That program expired Sept. 30, leaving many families, school districts, and legislators scrambling to deal with the new financial burden.

California and Maine saw what was coming and passed bills in 2021 ensuring all students had free school meals. Now Colorado and 8 other states are working to do the same. An additional two states have extended the program through the end of this school year, but don't have any pending legislation for beyond that.

"It's difficult to give a precise number [on how many families will be affected]," said Krista Ruffini, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who specializes in government policies that affect labor market, education, and health outcomes. "But before the pandemic, about 25% of students were attending a school that offered schoolwide free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision or related programs."

That means many families across the nation will likely need to start paying for school meals again.

In Colorado, a coalition of parents, teachers and anti-hunger advocates worked with legislators to get the Healthy School Meals for All proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot, so voters can decide whether to bring universal free school lunch back.

GlendaRika Garcia, a mom who helps people obtain food assistance through Hunger Free Colorado, believes it's an educational issue.

GlendaRika Garcia, a mother in Westminster, Colo., with her sons, Pedro, Alonzo and Mauricio. Garcia, a bilingual food assistance aid for Hunger Free Colorado, backs the ballot measure. She said if it passes it would ease some financial pressure on families who struggle with food insecurity but don't qualify for free school meals.
/ John Daley/Colorado Public Radio
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John Daley/Colorado Public Radio
GlendaRika Garcia, a mother in Westminster, Colo., with her sons, Pedro, Alonzo and Mauricio. Garcia, a bilingual food assistance aid for Hunger Free Colorado, backs the ballot measure. She said if it passes it would ease some financial pressure on families who struggle with food insecurity but don't qualify for free school meals.

"I think that the kids being able to eat for free at school is really important, for all families, all kids," said Garcia, a widow and a single mom of four boys. "Kids can't learn if they don't have good nutrition."

If Colorado voters approve Prop FF, it would create a program that would offer free meals to all public school students and help schools pay for them. It would also fund pay increases for frontline school cafeteria workers, helping schools dealing with staff shortages. The measure also would incentivize schools to buy Colorado products by providing them grants to do so.

"I was a recipient of free school lunch when I was younger," Garcia said, "and oftentimes, before my mom even qualified for that, we didn't have enough for lunch."

Ruffini said the most vulnerable group is likely families with incomes slightly above the cutoff for free or reduced-price school meals who aren't attending a Community Eligibility Provision school. Students with family income above 185% of the federal poverty line — about $42,600 for a single parent with 2 children or $51,300 for a family of 4 – pay the full price for school meals. Depending on her job, Garcia at times qualified and at times didn't, a blow to her budget.

"A lot of times, it's a financial burden for the parents," she said.

Another issue, Garcia said, is that some students bully others for getting a free lunch. It happened to her as a kid; it happened to one of her sons.

"They know that people can identify if they can't afford it. It hurts my heart," she said.

Her son Alonzo said that at his high school some students avoid the lunchroom rather than admit they qualify for free lunch.

"I think that they get embarrassed because they can't afford it," he said.

Other states have seen the problem, and similar to Colorado, have been working to solve it.

Massachusetts, Vermont, and Nevada have extended universal free school lunch through the 2022-23 school year, but Vermont and Nevada have not introduced any legislation to make it permanent.

Maine and California passed bills in 2021 making universal free school lunch permanent, similar to what Colorado is trying to do. Both measures took effect this school year.

California allocated $650 million from its state budget to fund and support its universal free school meals program for the 2022-23 school year. Maine's program was estimated by lawmakers to cost around $34 million a year.

Other states are working to do the same.

Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina introduced bills similar to the one on the Colorado ballot, most of them during the current legislative session. All of them are still in committee and have yet to go up for a vote. Colorado is the only state that has put the measure onto a ballot.

Although some states are working to ensure students receive access to free meals, most states are not.

In Colorado, low-income students will still keep receiving free meals whether the proposal passes or not. There's no organized opposition to Prop FF, but that doesn't mean no one is opposed to it.

"Nobody wants to be evil enough to say it, but this is a really stupid idea," said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank. "Most kids in Colorado do not need this. And in fact, those who do, already have this."

The group's voter's guide recommends a no vote.

If it passes, the Colorado measure would raise $100 million a year by increasing state taxable income, but only for the 3 percent or 4 percent who make at least $300,000 a year.

"This proposal is, 'Hey, let's get the rich guys to buy our kids lunch,' " Caldara said. "This is another expansion of state bureaucracy that is just not necessary."

The issue of cost may be driving further skepticism for universal free school lunch. Boston NPR affiliate WBUR reported that the USDA has spent $30 billion since 2020 on the program of subsidized meals for everyone, $11 billion more than it normally would spend on its income-based school lunch program.

Despite opposition to cost, universal free school lunch appears popular throughout the nation.

A 2021 poll by Data For Progress, a progressive polling firm, found that 74% of Americans support making universal free school meals permanent nationwide.

Another poll, taken in June 2022 by the Urban institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on social and economic research, found that 76% of adults living with children enrolled in public school and 67% of adults not living with children enrolled in public school supported permanent free school meals.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivy Winfrey
John Daley