Free Lunches Set To End Next School Year, Even as Need Continues To Grow

by Nia Peake ‘23

For the past two years, MCPS has provided students with free lunches due to federal lunch programs introduced by Congress in 2020 to combat obstacles and hardships from the pandemic. These programs are set to expire on June 30, ending free school lunches for the next school year.

On March 11 of this year, the $1.5 trillion spending package signed into law excluded the funding waivers within the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that had kept millions of kids fed throughout these last two school years. The termination of free lunch funding has left schools and nutrition advocates with uncertainty about their capability to serve school meals, considering the success that these programs have had in ensuring that no child goes hungry.

When schools had to shut down due to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) granted waivers for the NSLP to allow more freedom and flexibility to accommodate students. This funding meant that lunches were free of charge for all students no matter their income, waiving the tedious process of filling out eligibility applications. Schools created different distribution techniques, abiding by pandemic regulations, to make sure every kid was being fed. These positive benefits continued in the 2021-2022 school year as the USDA extended the waivers allowing schools to provide lunch free of cost still.

During this past school year, schools saw even more proof of how favorable free lunches have been for students. Sherwood Cafeteria Manager Lisa Nestor reported an enormous change in the number of students getting lunch. “The number of lunches increased. Most of the days, it doubled in number,” said Nestor.

Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the nonprofit ‘Show Our Strength’, issued a statement arguing about how severe consequences will be on schools without the flexibility they had from the waivers.

With the ongoing problem with inflation continuing to increase the expenses on food and gas and the current disruption in the supply chain, many financial and nutritional metrics are worse than before the pandemic. According to Davis, food vendors are having to charge more in their contracts, worrying some school districts, especially those not sure if they will be able to cover funds for summer meal programs. Also, due to supply chain problems, schools are losing out on federal funds to cover the cost of meals. The USDA estimates that the original $4.56 reimbursement that the government granted for meals will decrease to $2.91.

“These waivers are essential for schools and local meal providers, who have stepped up to feed kids since the start of the pandemic … Today Congress made their jobs harder,” argued Davis.