Free lunch may soon end for many CUSD students - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Free lunch may soon end for many CUSD students

April 24th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Free lunch may soon end for many CUSD students

By Ken Sain
Staff Writer

The universal free meals that Chandler Unified and other school districts have been providing to their students could end this summer.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) apparently told fellow Republicans the program was never intended to be permanent and that many in his party object to the $11 billion annual price tag as the federal deficit continues to grow. They also want schools to get back to normal in the waning days of the pandemic.

That’s one reason McConnell opposed including the free lunch program in the omnibus spending bill that funds the government through the end of this fiscal year.

Congress approved free meals at the nation’s schools as part of its first COVID-19 stimulus bill in March 2020. It gave districts U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers to feed an additional 10 million American students and also relaxed some regulations so they could deal with supply chain problems and staffing issues. The students, who are 18 and younger, get up to two meals a day, including lunch and breakfast.

Unless Congress takes action, the program will end July 1. However, two Senators introduced a bill to keep it going for at least one more year. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are the main sponsors of what they’re calling the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act.

If Congress does not renew the program, then schools will revert back to the free or reduced-price meal program they used before the pandemic, where eligibility was determined by a family’s income.

In the year before the pandemic began (Fiscal Year 2018-19), Chandler Unified School District provided 5,210,080 meals. Just over 2 million of those were free, with about 145,000 price-reduced. More than 3 million students paid full price that year.

This year they expect that number of free meals to exceed 6.8 million.

“Currently universal free meals will expire on June 30,” according to Jenny Bracamonte, director of food and nutrition operations for CUSD. “At that point we will transition back to a traditional [National School Lunch Program]. That being said, there is a new bill in Congress that allows for universal free meals to extend through September of 2023.

“We have not released any guidance to our families yet because it could very well change and it’s a bit too early. Of course, we will keep the district apprised of any changes as soon as we are aware.”

CUSD offered curbside meal delivery during the first few months of the pandemic, from April through July of 2020. In 2021, students did not return to classrooms until September and October. That makes comparing the number of meals before the pandemic difficult. The district gave out about 4.9 million meals in FY 2019-20 and more than 5.5 million in FY 2020-21.

The Arizona Food Bank Network said that one in six Arizonans struggles with food insecurity and that more than 311,000 children in this state face food insecurity.

USDA officials say 30 million American students have benefited from the universal free meal program during the pandemic – 10 million more kids than they were serving before the pandemic began.

The food bank network was criticized by many school officials. Parents had to fill out a lot of paperwork to determine if they were eligible for either free and reduced-price meals. Then schools were responsible for keeping track of which students got free meals, and which ones had to pay either partial, or full price.

Bracamonte said there were a number of benefits to the universal free meal program. They include:

• Addressed the challenges of operating the NSLP program during a period where students were in and out of school

• Districts could easily transition to curbside services should they need to close;

• Allowed districts to address their supply chain and staffing issues without running into a deficit;

• Reduced or eliminated stigma, as the financial barrier of paying for school meals is eliminated;

• Significantly less red tape and paperwork for school nutrition staff;

• More streamlined meal service operations allows the district to serve students faster and gives them more time to eat;

• Students are not turned away due to inability to pay at the secondary level and elementary students do not accrue meal debt;

• Allows district to reach additional students by serving in non-traditional serving areas – no cash registers, data hookups, etc.