Boulder Valley Food Services Director Stephen Menyhart called the federal support that allowed all students to eat school lunch for free, no paperwork required, during the pandemic a “great equalizer.”
“It showed us a vision of what’s possible,” he said.
He’s among the advocates disappointed with the recent failure of Congress to include universal free school meals in a $1.5 trillion federal spending bill. Universal free school meals, which fed an estimated 10 million more children during the pandemic, are set to expire in June.
“It seems shortsighted to take away what’s been an incredibly beneficial program,” Menyhart said. “It’s been an incredibly challenging time for many of our families. It’s really taken a financial burden off of households.”
He noted the free lunch income requirements don’t take into account local housing costs. To qualify, a family of four can’t make more than $50,000 a year.
“That’s challenging for many families who earn beyond that,” he said.
This school year, with free lunches for all, Boulder Valley’s participation rates increased by 60% for breakfast and 35% at lunch, he said. The St. Vrain Valley School District’s lunch participation also grew, though district officials did not provide information on how much it increased.
The federal reimbursement rate for school lunches also will revert back to pre-pandemic rates, about $1 per lunch for Boulder Valley, adding to the ongoing challenges of inflated food costs, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.
“It will be financially challenging,” Menyhart said.
He added that Boulder Valley is hoping the higher student participation rates continue, even as students must return to paying for meals. But, he said, the federal changes won’t change the district’s fundamental commitment to serving healthy, scratch-cooked meals with many locally sourced products.
“We are going to continue to serve and offer the high quality food that we’re known for,” he said.
While St. Vrain officials didn’t address whether the federal changes will impact its program, spokeswoman Kerri McDermid said students will continue to be provided meals even if they don’t have money in their lunch accounts.
Along with ending the federal support for free school meals for all, federal waivers that provide more flexibility for the school lunch program are expiring.
It was those waivers that allowed Boulder Valley to provide the equivalent of more than 2.2 million meals through an emergency food bag distribution program. The district began handing out meals shortly after the pandemic shuttered in-person schools in March 2020, providing grocery staples through a drive-through format.
“The waivers have allowed us to reach families in different ways,” Menyhart said.
Without those waivers, Menyhart said, this summer’s lunch program will be similar to what was offered before the pandemic, with breakfast and lunch provided only to students enrolled in summer school programs.
Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy for Hunger Free Colorado, said her organization is continuing to advocate at the federal level, as well as to support a state bill that’s intended as a longer term solution.
Senate Bill 87, as currently proposed, would reimburse school districts for the cost of lunches for students who don’t qualify for federal free and reduced lunch benefits. The bill also provides grants to districts to purchase Colorado food products and produce, as well as money to increase pay for food service workers.
If passed, the earliest the benefits would go into effect would be the 2023-24 school year, leaving a yearlong gap in universal free lunches.
“There are a lot of kids eating school lunch this year whose families don’t qualify, but are struggling with the cost of living,” Wheeland said. “The core of the bill is every kid who needs a meal should get one. Food is as important as any other tool for learning for our children.”
She said families on average spend $750 a year per child for school lunch for a total of $78 million in Colorado, money that could instead go to family groceries and other expenses.
“It’s just such a worthwhile investment,” Wheeland said.
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