Universal free school lunch program won’t be in place this fall at most schools

Exact impacts aren’t clear yet from the bill, but families should plan to fill out federal form to see if they qualify for free lunches.

Most Dayton-area students will not be able to automatically get a free school lunch when school begins this fall.

The Keep Kids Fed Act recently passed by Congress does not continue the free lunch program at schools regardless of incomes, but it does expand those eligible for free lunches and increases the reimbursement rate for schools.

The free lunch program or child nutrition waivers were originally established to relieve food insecurity at the beginning of the pandemic when children could not receive meals at school because of lockdowns. The waivers increased federal reimbursements for lunch programs and allowed schools to omit eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meals.

“This will definitely affect our high school families and many others in the community,” said Kathleen Housman, child nutrition supervisor for Fairborn City Schools.

A US Department of Agriculture survey found that 90% of schools took advantage of the increased funding and waivers to provide free meals to students regardless of income.

Housman said grades kindergarten through 8th grade at Fairborn will still be able to get free meals, but high school students will not unless they submit a form. Meals are free from kindergarten to 8th grade because Fairborn is eligible under the USDA Community Eligibility Provision.

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Housman said during the last two years, when families didn’t have to fill out paperwork to qualify for a free lunch, the district served 66% more kids at breakfast and 30% more kids at lunch.

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.

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Fairborn grades K-8 and all of Dayton Public Schools and Trotwood-Madison students are still eligible for free breakfast and lunch.

But in many other districts, including Miamisburg, Springboro and Kettering, families now need to fill out a waiver for their student to have a free school lunch.

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Brigette Hires, director of the Office of Nutrition at the Ohio Department of Education, said the Department of Agriculture was given authority to pass more waivers for kids, but those have not yet been issued. Until they are issued, it’s premature to talk about impact, she said.

Dayton Public Schools has been particularly concerned about supply chain shortages, but superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said it’s not clear how the new law will affect their district.

Dayton Public’s Board of Education passed a resolution at its school board meeting on June 21 stating their belief the waiver to help with supply chain issues was necessary to the districts’ ability to feed their students.

“This is good for our district,” said Jocelyn Rhynard, vice president of the school board, at the meeting referring to the resolution. “This is good for students, especially districts such as ours, where we have a very high number of children who do not have access to proper nutrition and proper fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in the summer when they are not coming to school buildings every single day.”

In addition to the act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide nearly $1 billion in additional funding to schools to support purchases of foods grown in the U.S. for meal programs.

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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