Universal free school meal program to end this month

Local schools have been providing free meals to students with federal funding for the past two years, but that will soon change as districts are headed back to paid breakfasts and lunches next school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented universal free meals during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years nationwide to help with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the program, the USDA reimbursed schools for the meals served during the school day.

That program expires this month, meaning families who don’t economically qualify for free meals will have to pay for school meals once again. Also, with inflation affecting food prices, the cost of those meals will likely increase from the 2019-20 school year price.

At Greenwood schools the cost of full-price breakfast meals will go up from $1.25 to $1.45. Lunches for elementary school students will cost $2.45, up from the previous $2.35, and secondary school lunches will increase to $2.65 from the previous $2.55, said Leslie Hicks, food service director.

Other schools’ food service directors said their districts have not yet decided on a price for school meals. Indian Creek schools, for example, won’t know if they need to increase prices until they fill out a USDA form, said Mike Vetter, food service director.

“If the form says we must do a price increase, then we have to do it, even if we don’t want to do it,” he said.

Vetter wants to see universal free meal program continued, he said.

“Universal free meals have greatly benefited every school district,” Vetter said. “Here, for example, I served about 75 breakfasts a day at the high school when things were normal. (With the program) it was 250 or more a day. It’s obviously a very worthwhile program.”

Families can fill out applications to have the price of those meals either significantly reduced or given to their children for free, depending on household income and family size.

At Center Grove schools, for example, the full cost of a lunch at the secondary level during the 2019-20 school year was $2.50, but for students qualifying for reduced-price lunch, it was 40 cents, according to school district documents.

Starting July 1, families can fill out forms to find out if they qualify. Forms can be found on each school district’s website.

Whether or not a family qualifies depends on not only income, but number of children. If parents happen to lose their jobs in the middle of the school year, they can fill out a new form to reflect that information, said Elizabeth Edwards, food service director at Clark-Pleasant schools.