Pandemic-era federal funding that provided free breakfast and lunch for all school children in the United States is set to expire this fall, shifting schools back to a system of need-based food …
Pandemic-era federal funding that provided free breakfast and lunch for all school children in the United States is set to expire this fall, shifting schools back to a system of need-based food support.
School districts that offer free and reduced-price lunch for students do so thanks to federal reimbursements for those meals. Money for such assistance was vastly increased during the COVID pandemic, allowing schools to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income.
With that extra funding set to expire, schools would have to switch back to income-based screening for meal assistance, requiring families to fill out applications to receive the support. The rollback would be the latest cut to federal funding that for two years made it possible for struggling families to have secure access to food, despite the uncertainties of the pandemic.
Families who think they might be eligible for meal assistance should strongly consider filling out an application once updated forms become available later this summer, according to the heads of the Warren County R-III and Wright City R-II school districts.
In fact, any family is encouraged to fill out a form, even if they aren’t sure they’ll qualify for assistance.
“People are typically surprised that they qualify, because depending on the number of kids you have in the home, the income can be relatively high,” explained Wright City Superintendent Chris Berger. “Best practice is, no matter what your income level, turn in a form.”
Other than slight adjustments allowing higher household income, the criteria for receiving free or reduced-price lunch hasn’t changed from pre-COVID, said R-III Superintendent Gregg Klinginsmith. He said USDA, the agency that reimburses meal costs, sets the guidelines.
“We want everyone to fill out the form if they think they might qualify, just so we don’t miss anyone,” Klinginsmith commented.
Funding for meal assistance was actually scheduled to expire in July, but the U.S. Congress voted to extend that funding until the end of September. Klinginsmith said that leaves questions for how meal assistance will work for the start of school in August, as well as whether there will be a further funding extension or other changes.
“There’s so much up in the air on this, we don’t really know what’s going on yet,” Klinginsmith said. “I think we’ll know more at the end of the month.”
In Wright City, the school district is taking advantage of the funding extension to offer a couple more weeks of free meals for school-age children, Berger said. He added that once the district is no longer offering meals, the Wright City Community Food Pantry has agreed to step in to cover the gap until the start of the school year.
A large number of families in Warren County rely on meal assistance through the schools. In the Warrenton-area R-III district, nearly 50 percent of students qualified for meal assistance prior to COVID, Klinginsmith said. In the Wright City R-II district, an average of over 40 percent of students qualified, said Berger.
Both districts offer several ways to sign up for meal assistance, including printing the forms from online, contacting the district office, or contacting your child’s school. Forms may also be distributed in enrollment packets closer to the start of the school year.
Signing up for the meal assistance program can lead to additional benefits besides food, both for individual students and for district programs as a whole. A significant amount of outside government funding is available to districts to help meet the educational needs of low-income communities, which is determined in part by the number of students receiving meal assistance, Berger explained.
He said funds impacted by district poverty levels include for reading, math, and English language instruction, as well as general Missouri state funding distribution for schools. Free and reduced-price meal signups provide districts with data that can help maximize that state funding, Berger said.
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