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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Free Lunch for All Students Ends in Maryland, Other States

School breakfasts and lunches will no longer remain free for school students regardless of their parents’ income or family size in states such as Maryland. The federal waiver expired on June 30, 2022, ahead of school’s reopening, despite inflation woes.  Gas and food prices are up, leaving some American families in financial binds with less ability to provide funds to pack nutritious school meals.

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry (NKH) campaign is a grantor for school systems. Funding is provided to pay for additional meals and related staffing.

Ayesha Holmes, the Maryland Director of NKH, reminded that it is important for parents to fill out the free and reduced-priced meals applications for school meals this year as soon as possible to determine eligibility for their children, if they have not already done so.

“For the last two years, through the federal government, we’ve all across the country experienced universal free meals and so we have gotten out of the habit of filling out these forms,” Holmes said. “We want to bring it to the front of mind for families so that every child who is eligible is able to receive a free or reduced-priced meal. The great news in the state of Maryland this year is that the reduced-price category is gone, so even if you were eligible by federal standards to receive a reduced-price meal, you’ll now receive it for free.”

Dinner lady serving kids in a school cafeteria, side view

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, when children have qualified for free or reduced-price school meals based on household income and family size, “children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. Schools could not charge children over 40 cents for a reduced-price lunch through USDA’s National School Lunch Program, which is a federally assisted meal program.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which is a trade organization representing more than 50,000 school nutrition employees, commented about the universal free meals ending, according to Yahoo!

“They are very concerned about financial sustainability,” Pratt-Heavner said in the interview. “They’re very concerned about kids going hungry next year.”

Congressionally appropriated funding began in March 2020. It included a host of waivers and summer food programs were expanded. When the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced in a press release that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) extended several flexibilities through December 31, 2020, summer meal program operators were able to continue serving free meals to all children into the fall months as America recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At that time, school Nutrition Association (SNA) President Reggie Ross mentioned the value of school waivers allowing “school nutrition professionals to focus on nourishing hungry children for success, rather than scrambling to process paperwork and verify eligibility in the midst of a pandemic.”

As no-cost meals for all schoolchildren end and school meal programs return to pre-pandemic systems, Holmes added that parents should visit the school district’s website to find the application. A search for it can be conducted by using words such as “free and reduced lunch.”

“Many schools in Maryland are currently serving both breakfast and lunch. And yes, the free and reduced-price category would absolutely include whatever school meals are there. The reason I think it’s so incredibly important this year, I think that we’re experiencing an incredibly high cost of living across our state. Families are struggling to make ends meet, and the cost of basic needs such as food, housing, gas are just exorbitantly high this year,” Holmes said. “So, if a family is eligible, I would strongly encourage them to take advantage of this. It will alleviate their own home budget and also give the children the opportunity to have a good meal at school.”

Although Holmes pointed out that filling out the application online may help to speed up the review process, paper applications should be available at schools. She added that California and Maine are providing universal meals. However, all states require a free and reduced-price meal application to be completed because it is used for reimbursement from the federal government.

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