Free school lunch signups slow since return to pre-COVID income-based policy

School meal programs in most local districts have returned to pre-COVID guidelines, requiring student sign-ups and income eligibility for free or reduced-price food, an issue several districts have found challenging to communicate.

With the end of a 30-day grace period for sign-ups looming, some school districts said they are concerned not all students eligible for the program are filing for it, according to results of a recent Dayton Daily News survey.

School officials in Centerville, Fairborn, Huber Heights, Kettering and Springboro — which all offer the grace period — said getting the message out that the program is no longer free to all students has been an obstacle.

The federal free meal program was extended to all public school districts after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.

“The biggest challenge, by far, is reaching out to our families that have children at Fairborn High School to make them aware that they have to fill out a meal application for their children to receive free or reduced meals this year,” Fairborn Child Nutrition Supervisor Emmy Brown said in the email survey.

Centerville has used “all of our communication methods, including text messages, emails and social media, to help get the word out,” district spokeswoman Sarah Swan said in the survey.

Financial implications

Other survey respondents said they have used similar avenues. Some districts said the change has had financial implications.

In Kettering, “our ‘charge balance’ is higher than what we would like to see this early in the school year,” district Spokeswoman Kari Basson said.

Charge balances are applied to students receiving the meals but have not yet paid for them, officials said.

The loss of federal funding, said Springboro’s Scott Marshall, “has a huge impact on (the) food service budget as food and supply costs have in some cases doubled over prior year. Supply chain issues are still a challenge.”

Springboro’s federal reimbursement for August 2021 was $110,170, Marshall said. For this August, it dropped to $32,031, he added.

Last year, the district received about $4.56 in federal funding for each school lunch served, Marshall said. This year, the amount is $4.33 for free meals, $3.93 for reduced-price meals and $0.77 for full-price meals.

An issue in Huber Heights has been “parents who were new to the district during the pandemic do not understand that they need to fill out an application … regardless of application status during the pandemic,” district spokeswoman Cassie Dietrich said.

Not all school districts must have students apply for the program. Some have high enough poverty rates that all students remain eligible for free meals under the longstanding “community eligibility provision.”

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But under re-instituted guidelines this school year, most students must sign up and be approved.

The program is operated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Education.

Grace period nears end

Nationally, more than 25 million students in about 90,000 schools and agencies participate in child nutrition programs, making them one of the country’s largest food service operations, according to ODE.

Ohio’s food service programs serve more than one million meals daily across more than 3,000 sites, state records show.

A student’s eligibility from the previous school year carries over for up to 30 operating days from the first day of school — or until a new eligibility determination is made — whichever comes first, according to the ODE spokeswoman Lacey Snoke.

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As some districts started classes in mid-August, the grace period will end for them by Oct. 1. Some, like Fairborn, have default — or basic — meals, or offer similar choices regardless of a student’s filing status.

In Kettering, “no child … is ever denied a meal because they either don’t have sufficient funds in their school meal account or their parent/guardian has not yet had a chance to complete the free/reduced meal application,” Basson said.

Huber Heights doesn’t have a default meal program, said Kasey Wonderly, the district’s nutrition services supervisor.

But “we do not single out students who do not have funds on their accounts. All students receive the same meal choice regardless of meal benefits status or funds available.”

Sign-up rates through Sept. 7 ranged from nearly 10% of student enrollment in Springboro to about 67% in Fairborn, according to survey results.

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Fairborn’s numbers are similar to pre-pandemic years, but “I do expect the rate to increase once our high school families start submitting more meal applications,” Brown said.

Huber Heights had between 60%-70% participation in the program prior to COVID, Wonderly said.

“We are more than halfway there and hope to reach those same numbers this year,” she added.


BY THE NUMBERS

•25 million-plus: U.S. students participating in child nutrition programs.

•3,000-plus: Sites served by Ohio’s food service programs.

•67: Percentage of Fairborn students estimated in free meal programs.

•9.5: Percentage of Springboro students estimated in free meal programs.

SOURCES: Ohio Department of Education, Fairborn and Springboro schools.

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