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The Free School Lunch Program Ends Soon — These 5 Low- Or No-Cost Food Resources Can Help

COVID-era free children’s nutrition waivers won’t carry into the new school year, leaving many parents concerned about their kids’ nutritional needs.

Student holds lunch tray in cafeteria.
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It keeps getting harder to feed our kids, doesn't it? The latest attack on kids' health and wellness comes straight from Congress with the end of the Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers. For roughly two years, children across the country have been offered free breakfast and lunch, no matter their family's income or even if school was in session. Depending on your location, you were able to head to the local library or roll through your local school's bus loop once a week and pick up a bag full of healthy, yummy meals for your kids, free of charge, thanks in large part to the waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Now, with inflation continuing to soar, recession looming, a "school lunch debt" problem, sustained formula and food shortages, and a continued rise in cost of living, the Child Nutrition Waiver has been sunsetted for the coming year by Congress as a way to "cut spending." This bold and thoughtless move leaves millions of families wondering what to do now.

A mere week shy of the free meal program expiring on June 30, President Joe Biden signed into effect the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act, which provides extra resources to schools, childcare food programs, and summer meal sites to help weather rising food and labor costs. However, a provision extending the universal free lunch program was cut before the bill reached Biden. Said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat who co-led the charge to get the waivers extended, "This is something that frankly ought to be easy in America. This is about feeding children, making sure children don't go to school hungry so they can be successful."

With staggering grocery prices a pain point for many families at the moment, the looming burden of losing school meal assistance is a concern moving into the new school year. There is still some help available — but it's going to require a little more legwork on the part of parents.

Why is the free lunch program ending?

As with all things related to politicians, asking who's to blame draws a lot of pointed fingers. Politico has reported that an unnamed source in GOP leadership claims cutting the Child Nutrition Waivers from the budget was seen as a way to "get schools back to normal" and, of course, reduce government spending. (A pay cut for leadership never seems to be an option.) Meanwhile, Democrats have been quick to point out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vehemently opposed the waivers, though his spokesperson has since said plans for an extension were never even brought to meetings.

All we know for sure at this point is that the waiver extension was in President Biden's budget and disappeared soon after.

How beneficial are free lunches?

For many parents, free lunches may not seem that necessary. You happily supply your children with $4 a day for a slice of delivery pizza. Or you don't cringe at the cost of fancy, sectioned Bento boxes perfect for sending hearty lunches to school every day. For a large number of families, though, the free meals from the Child Nutrition Waiver weren't just helpful; they were a lifeline.

According to the Census Bureau, 37.2 million people (more than 11% of the American population) live below the poverty line. The poverty line, by the way, doesn't factor in the cost of living in each state. What is the poverty line? It's the income the government has deemed necessary for a person or family to constitute "not poverty." The current poverty guideline for a family of four is $26,500 yearly income.

According to Financer, the cheapest state to live in is Mississippi, where the median income is still almost $20k more than the poverty line. The average rent in Mississippi is $795 a month, or $9,540 a year. If you're living right at the poverty guideline of $26,500, you're left with $16,960 a year or $1,413 a month to pay for utilities, car payments/insurance, and... groceries. That seems unattainable even in the cheapest state in the U.S. Now, try doing it in California, the most expensive, where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,274, according to RentData.org.

How can you get meal assistance now?

1. - 2. National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs

While the Child Nutrition Waiver is ending, it's worth noting that not all meal help is coming to an end. The free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs you were aware of as a child still exist. As a matter of fact, pre-pandemic, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) gave out roughly 29.6 free or "low-cost" lunches each day in 2019. And the good news is that the NSLP and National School Breakfast Program use a scale to determine a family's qualification that actually starts above the poverty line.

  • If your family is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line, your kids will qualify for free lunch.
  • If your family is between 131-185% of the federal poverty line, your children will qualify for reduced-cost lunch.

You can apply for the program directly at your students' schools — they should send home paperwork to every student within the first week of school. If not, however, call or visit the school office. It also merits mentioning that school districts and schools can choose to participate in the program, so these options are not truly universal.

3. BackPack Programs

Backpack Programs are essentially what you're probably picturing right now — a backpack filled with healthy, easy-to-prepare food for families. Food banks in Feeding America's member network partner with Boys and Girls Clubs, community centers, and schools to distribute this kid-friendly resource. There are over 11,000 Backpack Programs in the Feeding America network, and you can find one near you by plugging your zip code into their website.

4. Food Pantries

Speaking of Feeding America, they’re just one collection of food banks scattered across the country offering food assistance without asking a ton of questions. At most food banks, you can literally just show an ID or piece of mail with your zip code, and you'll then be ushered into what will look like a grocery store full of canned, frozen, and fresh food for you to pick out what you want and need and bring home to your family.

Many private businesses and farms offer food pantries or free markets, too. A great place to find resources is simply joining a neighborhood or city's Facebook group. Some communities might already have a document list with available neighborhood food pantries. Or, if you have the courage to post and ask (even anonymously), you'll most likely receive tons of resources.

5. Food Stamps

Never, never, never be ashamed of doing what you need to do to feed your family. If you make at or below 130% of the federal poverty line, you also qualify for food stamps (or "SNAP"). While food stamps may not work directly in your child's cafeteria, accepting state-funded food assistance with groceries is still a tremendous help in feeding your kids. You can use it to buy groceries for the whole family, freeing up your hard-earned money to go towards any of the other 10 million things you need to spend money on to care for your child.

Each state has its own application procedures, and how much you're awarded will depend on your income and your family size. Find the food stamp office in your state and do what you need to feed your babies. This day, this week, this month, right now, you need help — we all do sometimes, in one way or another. Don't feel bad for accepting the support available to you.