Universal free lunch programs could end at some area schools

Meal waivers set to expire June 30 if Congress does not pass introduced legislation.

A lifeline for many families during the pandemic — the universal free school lunch program — could end next week at some schools if a federal bill introduced Tuesday in Congress is not passed.

Universal free lunch, which has been served in districts during the school year and summer recess, was instituted at the start of the pandemic to ensure school kids wouldn’t go hungry through the crisis.

Ending the program is a concern in some area school districts.

“With high gas and food prices, along with food shortages, children of families with limited financial resources could face even more food challenges,” said Jenny Alexander, a spokesman for Mad River schools. “We could also see many students from families who don’t qualify for subsidized meals going hungry if the waivers aren’t continued.”

Normally, free-and-reduced lunch eligibility is determined by income criteria based on household size. Families were required to fill out forms to receive the benefit, but that paperwork was waived during the pandemic.

A bipartisan group in Congress proposed the $3 billion Keep Kids Fed Act on Tuesday, which would extend the waivers until Sept. 30 if passed. The bill passed the House of Representatives on Thursday and now will go to the Senate.

If not passed by June 30, districts like Kettering, Centerville, Troy, Springboro, Mad River and Miamisburg will lose their waiver to provide their meals.

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The change does not affect Dayton Public Schools’ offering of free breakfast and lunch for all grades, and Fairborn will be able to continue to offer free breakfast and lunch for kindergarten through eighth grades.

The change does, however, affect several districts’ ability to feed kids this summer. Mad River’s summer food program is ending on July 1. Kettering schools were unable to offer free meals this summer. Fairborn was only able to provide meals in a group setting, unlike the past two summers, when families could be given bagged lunches.

The increased reimbursement rates and flexibilities around the kinds of foods schools can serve would remain through the end of next school year under the deal announced Tuesday. The legislation would bring back the school meal paperwork for students to qualify and provide free meals for students normally eligible for reduced-price meals.

Advocates say that paperwork and a lack of knowledge among parents about the free and reduced lunch program in schools is a barrier to getting every child a free meal. Extending the waivers in the pandemic temporarily removed that barrier.

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The waivers ending comes at a time when the Dayton Foodbank has already seen a skyrocketing need for help with food, and the Dayton-area libraries who participate in summer food programs say they have also seen a high demand for food assistance.

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Supply chain issues

All students will still be eligible for free lunches and breakfast at Dayton Public Schools, but superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the waivers also allowed more flexibility for the district to purchase food.

Both Dayton Public and Fairborn officials said they were continuing to see supply chain issues, which could affect what the schools can offer. Lolli said DPS may get more peanut butter or cheese, which could affect what the district can offer.

“Unless there is a severe supply chain issue, the amount of food that we have will still be available,” Lolli said. “We’ll still feed all of our kids.”

Lolli said the district did not anticipate any food shortages this summer, as the district has stocked up and frozen some foods.’

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Ways to find free food this summer:

Dayton Public Schools resource: https://www.dps.k12.oh.us/students-parents/summer-food-service-program/

Dayton Metro Libraries: http://www.daytonmetrolibrary.org/meals

Find a complete list of USDA summer meal sites at www.fns.usda.gov/meals4kids.

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